Did BP intentionally ‘low-ball’ the extent of the Gulf oil spill?

US Geological Survey estimates on the flow of oil from the wrecked wellhead are more than double what BP has been claiming, leading some to accuse BP of misrepresenting the flow of oil to minimize fines.

By MARK GUARINO | Christian Science Monitor Staff Writer
posted May 27, 2010 at 2:46 pm EDT

BP may have known the flow rate from the underwater oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico was two to four times higher than the estimate the company announced last month, according to a technical group commissioned by the US Geological Survey (USGS).

Some, including a Massachusetts congressman, are saying the company may have relied on the lower estimate to prevent future penalties from the federal government, which are based upon the number of barrels released in a spill.

The USGS is reporting the flow rate from the underwater wellhead in the Gulf is between 12,000 and 19,000 barrels per day. BP has stated their estimates put the flow rate at 5,000 barrels per day. At the high end, the new estimate puts the amount of oil released into the Gulf at close to three times the amount spilled after the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground in Alaska’s Prince William sound in 1989.

The USGS collected data using three separate methodologies that analyzed the amount of oil on the surface as well as video feeds that showed the amount gushing from the sea’s bottom. As of May 17, the 27th day of the spill, US Geological Survey Director Marcia McNutt said there was between 130,000 and 270,000 barrels of oil on the Gulf’s surface.

In a press conference with reporters Thursday morning, McNutt put the conflicting numbers into context, saying BP did not have access to NASA technology used in USGS estimates. “The original estimate was based on very limited data approved” by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, the federal scientific agency that is taking the lead in recovery efforts, she added.

“To tell you the truth [BP] did have numbers ranging from 1,000 to 13,000 barrels per day. They had such wildly different numbers all based on surface observations that they decided to take a number somewhere in the middle that they thought was conservative and defensible,” Ms. McNutt said.

BP’s higher estimates are evidence the company was worried more about their potential liability costs, says Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) who chairs the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming. The Clean Water Act subjects companies to fines between $1,000-$3,000 per barrel spilled, depending on whether gross negligence is deemed to have been present.

The USGS estimates put BP’s potential fines between $444 million and $2.1 billion, according to Markey.

“Now we know what we always knew—this spill is much larger than BP has claimed,” Markey said in a statement. “What’s clear is that BP has had an interest in low-balling the size of their accident, since every barrel spilled increases how much they could be fined by the government.”

The technical group that came up with the revised estimates is comprised of federal scientists, academic experts and independent scientists. BP representatives are not included but participated only by supplying the team with raw data upon request.

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