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Gulf Oil Spill Estimates May Be Off By Over A Factor Of Ten

NPR received a tape from BP showing video of the oil spill in the Gulf and consulted several experts in the field about the rate of oil spilling from the pipe. There were three scientists. Using three different methods. And they all came up with the same result: the official estimate of 5,000 barrels a day is off by a factor of ten. At least.

Steven Wereley, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Purdue University, analyzed videotape of the seafloor gusher using a technique called particle image velocimetry.

A computer program simply tracks particles and calculates how fast they are moving. Wereley put the BP video of the gusher into his computer. He made a few simple calculations and came up with an astonishing value for the rate of the oil spill: 70,000 barrels a day — much higher than the official estimate of 5,000 barrels a day.

The method is accurate to a degree of plus or minus 20 percent.

Given that uncertainty, the amount of material spewing from the pipe could range from 56,000 barrels to 84,000 barrels a day. It is important to note that it’s not all oil. The short video BP released starts out with a shot of methane, but at the end it seems to be mostly oil.

If this is true, the oil spill in the Gulf already exceeds the Exxon Valdez disaster several times over. Combine this with the fact that BP has elected to use one-third of the world’s supply of known toxic chemicals to disperse the oil with very little oversight and we may actually be looking at the single biggest environmental catastrophe in U.S. history. The ecosystem of the Gulf of Mexico was already in a very fragile state, thanks to fertilizer runoff from the Mississippi river which has created a dead zone the size of New Jersey near the coast. The combination of the dead zone, oil and dispersants creates conditions that have the potential to wipe out most of the species there. That means goodbye fisheries. Goodbye oyster harvests. Goodbye shrimp catches. Maybe not. Hopefully not. But given that it might be a month or more before the pipe is shut off this is a very real possibility.

And the most damning thing of all is the complete lack of oversight over the safety systems that were supposed to prevent this from happening in the first place.

A House energy panel investigation has found that the blowout preventer that failed to stop a huge oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico had a dead battery in its control pod, leaks in its hydraulic system, a “useless” test version of a key component and a cutting tool that wasn’t strong enough to shear through steel joints in the well pipe and stop the flow of oil.

Absolutely mind boggling.

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About Alex Knapp
Alex Knapp writes about pretty much everything under the sun, including politics, art, religion, philosophy, sports, music, culture, and science.

Comments

  1. anjin-san says:

    Environmental catastrophe? You betcha!

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  2. Steve Plunk says:

    Funny how this is getting so much press while the Nashville flood gets little. The human catastrophe upsets me more than the oil spill.

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  3. john personna says:

    NPR gave sad stories of the Nashville flood Steve, no liberal cover-up.

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  4. David says:

    Tudor Holt Pickering put out a note about this analysis and makes a good case that the 50,000 bbls/day projections are too high.

    Thunder horse is one of the best deep water wells in the Gulf of Mexico. It has a rate about 25,000 bbls/day. This well wasn’t supposed to be as good as Thunder horse.

    Thunderhorse is pushing up against 200psi of backpressure while this hole is pushing up against 5000′ of seawater ( around 2200 psi)

    They believe the analysis is off because of the quantity of Natural Gas and other gasses that is coming out of the hole at the same time. Making it look more active.

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  5. Alex Knapp says:

    Steve,

    The Gulf Oil Spill *is* a human tragedy. It’s wiping out a large food supply, destroying an industry and the jobs that go with it, and filling the local waters with toxins that have been linked to cancer and birth defects.

    Nobody questions the tragedy of the Nashville floods, and I think that there has definitely been quite a bit of media coverage of them. However, the Gulf spill is a disaster that drawfs those floods by several orders of magnitude, and the damage in the spill was both man-made and preventable.

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  6. Drew says:

    A Purdue University engineer, eh?? A great man doing great work.

    “A House energy panel investigation has found that the blowout preventer that failed to stop a huge oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico had a dead battery in its control pod, leaks in its hydraulic system, a “useless” test version of a key component and a cutting tool that wasn’t strong enough to shear through steel joints in the well pipe and stop the flow of oil.”

    Like most catstrophic accidents, a series of problems. Think about it.

    A dead battery: maintenance procedure failure.

    Hydraulic leaks: another maintenance failure.

    Useless test version: the nexus of a design and policy error.

    A “soft” cutting wheel: perhaps a materials specification error; perhaps a QC issue.

    In any event, I agree: mind boggling. Also indicative of a systemic problem. A Philadelphia lawyer is going to have a hard time sorting this one out.

    I wouldn’t want to be a BP shareholder.

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  7. Dave Schuler says:

    I’m not sure what you’re saying here, Alex. I agree that the spill in the Gulf is a terrible situation. I’m not prepared to suggest specific remedies. Are you?

    The one illogical remedy is not drilling in the Gulf. There are something like 5,000 wells in the Gulf with hundreds of thousands or millions of operational hours without such problems.

    I think we need better measures for dealing with large spills, funded by tax dollars or fees imposed on producers if the market doesn’t produce such measures (as it apparently hasn’t). If stronger oversight would actually prevent such spills in the future, I’d support that, too.

    I’m not sure that generalized hand-wringing moves us in a productive direction.

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  8. PD Shaw says:

    Dave, there is a fund, the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, supported by taxes on oil, to be used to pay government costs to respond to oil spills and pay claims.

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  9. Franklin says:

    There are something like 5,000 wells in the Gulf with hundreds of thousands or millions of operational hours without such problems.

    Well, this is a bit like saying there are thousands of perfectly secure nuclear warheads. That’s great, but what about the one that isn’t?

    It only takes one to cause a catastrophe, and whether you like Alex’s tone or not, there should be appropriate pressure applied to the appropriate people to make sure this does not happen again, preferably ever. Inspect all 5,000 wells and add additional failsafes? It may be cheap compared to the damage here.

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  10. Drew says:

    “The one illogical remedy is not drilling in the Gulf. There are something like 5,000 wells in the Gulf with hundreds of thousands or millions of operational hours without such problems.”

    To be sure, just as an airplane accident is not the predicate to ban flying.

    But the point I think was implicit in my systemic comment is that, just as the airlines have done over the years, a full accident evaluation and then policy and procedure changes is warranted.

    Alex – You weren’t headed down the no more drilling path were you?

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  11. UlyssesUnbound says:

    I don’t think Alex was going down the “no more drilling path,” but instead was pointing out that:
    a. As Drew pointed out, policy and procedure needs to be changed.
    b. The 5,000 barrels a day estimate was so off the mark that BP could not have credibly believed this was the true amount of oil being leaked. Since future punitive measures will probably be based in a large part on how much oil was actually released, this estimate had to have been knowingly false.

    A Purdue University engineer, eh?? A great man doing great work.

    We always do.

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  12. UlyssesUnbound says:

    Good thing we haven’t pushed ahead with policy that would promote rapidly expanding offshore wind farms. It could be thousands of gallons of air spilling into the ocean instead of oil.

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  13. wr says:

    The most damning thing of all is the complete lack of oversight? I’m sorry, but I thought that’s what Republicans and libertarians called “freedom.” Any move for the government to do anything like, say, oversee an industry is called socialism, communism and fascism. The only possible solution is the brilliance of the free market, which by punishing BP’s stock price will magically clean up the damage.

    Now we have a disaster and it’s shocking that there was a complete lack of oversight? That’s been the Republican philosophy for years. Sorry if I fail to share the shock that there’s gambling around here…

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  14. PD Shaw says:

    One point worth keeping in mind, the oil rig wasn’t owned by BP, they had contracted with a company called Transocean to drill. And that brings up the issue of damage caps.

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  15. Alex Knapp says:

    Drew,

    Alex – You weren’t headed down the no more drilling path were you?

    No. I mean, sure in an ideal world we wouldn’t have to drill, but stopping it would be extraordinarily impractical. But regulations need to be tightened and there clearly needs to be a lot more oversight. With 5,000 other wells out there, I hope that safety isn’t as lax as it was in this case.

    Dave,

    As UlyssesUnbound says, it’s worthwhile to point out that BP has been obfuscating the truth about the extent of the spill damage. It may not be off by a factor of ten. Maybe it’s only off by a factor of five (as experts quoted in the NYT suggested yesterday). That’s still a helluva mistake. That calls into question their credibility in a situation where the government is currently primarily relying on them to fix the problem.

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  16. TangoMan says:

    Obama’s Katrina. Let’s see if the press can get up off their knees and vilify Obama as they did Bush.

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  17. Grewgills says:

    More on the lax regulation of Gulf drilling
    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/14/us/14agency.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

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  18. Davebo says:

    As someone who has caught thousands of fish along the TX/LA gulf coast I can tell you that the “Dead Zone” theory is a bit overblown.

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  19. sam says:

    There might be a way to get the accurate measurement:

    BP has repeatedly said that its highest priority is stopping the leak, not measuring it. “There’s just no way to measure it,” Kent Wells, a BP senior vice president, said in a recent briefing.

    Yet for decades, specialists have used a technique that is almost tailor-made for the problem. With undersea gear that resembles the ultrasound machines in medical offices, they measure the flow rate from hot-water vents on the ocean floor. Scientists said that such equipment could be tuned to allow for accurate measurement of oil and gas flowing from the well.

    Richard Camilli and Andy Bowen, of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, who have routinely made such measurements, spoke extensively to BP last week, Mr. Bowen said. They were poised to fly to the gulf to conduct volume measurements.

    But they were contacted late in the week and told not to come, at around the time BP decided to lower a large metal container to try to capture the leak. That maneuver failed. They have not been invited again. [Source]

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  20. Alex Knapp says:

    Davebo,

    There is no dead zone off the TX coast and it doesn’t extend to all of the LA coast so I’m not surprised that you can catch fish there.

    However, the average number and size of the fish being caught in all of the Gulf has diminished significantly over the past few decades, due to overfishing and pollution.

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  21. john personna says:

    Obama’s Katrina. Let’s see if the press can get up off their knees and vilify Obama as they did Bush.

    Stupidest comment of the day (so far at least). I suppose you think you can throw it out in fun, and we’ll just forget that your thoughts contain such clunkers.

    The chief executive of BP has conceded that the UK company is “absolutely responsible” for the oil spill threatening the coast off the Gulf of Mexico, which has been branded by President Obama as a “massive and potentially unprecedented environmental disaster”.

    Tony Hayward, who has been the chief executive of BP since 2007, said that the company was prepared to pay all legitimate claims relating to the growing crisis.

    Or would you like Mr. Obama to seize BP and make it “his Katrina?”

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  22. jukeboxgrad says:

    The most damning thing of all is the complete lack of oversight? I’m sorry, but I thought that’s what Republicans and libertarians called “freedom.”

    We really need to do what the GOP has been trying to do for years: drown the government in a bathtub. After all, the ‘free market’ is perfectly capable of looking after itself. Who needs government oversight? That’s only for Marxists, not real Americans.

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  23. Drew says:

    No. wr’s comment was the dumbest. By a country mile.

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  24. TangoMan says:

    Obama’s Katrina:

    . . . but the minerals agency since January 2009 has approved at least three huge lease sales, 103 seismic blasting projects and 346 drilling plans. Agency records also show that permission for those projects and plans was granted without getting the permits required under federal law.

    Remind me again, with whom does the buck stop?

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  25. Grewgills says:

    Tango,
    From the second paragraph of the article we cited,

    Those approvals, federal records show, include one for the well drilled by the Deepwater Horizon rig, which exploded on April 20, killing 11 workers and resulting in thousands of barrels of oil spilling into the gulf each day.

    From the wiki on Horizon Deepwater,

    Construction started in December 1998 and was delivered in February 2001 after the acquisition of R&B Falcon by Transocean.

    So where does the buck stop on this one?

    To the extent that this disgraceful problem continued under Obama he should be held to account, but for some reason I see strong opposition coming from conservative circles if he stops that particular shameful practice. I can already hear the exclamations about the marxist trying to destroy the free market by making it more difficult to drill baby drill.

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  26. anjin-san says:

    Obama’s Katrina.

    In the fantasies of far right nutjobs, sure.

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  27. wr says:

    Drew — Why dumb? Because (once again) it’s been proven that the right-wing/libertarian idea that the magic market will take care of all wrongs is false to the level of fairy tale? BP was allowed to drill because they promised they were safe, and the government backed off — because the MMS was run by oil company stooges. (Oh, and people who were doing cocaine supplied by oil companies and sleeping with oil lobbyists.)

    This is the practical result of your philosophy. Sure, “liberty” sounds pretty when you’re screaming it, but this is what your liberty is really all about. Own it, my friend.

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  28. JKB says:

    Well here’s everybody’s chance to submit their idea for how to stop the leak.

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  29. john personna says:

    I have a few questions …

    How many of you were in the “drill, baby, drill” camp?

    Did you say “drill” because you believed safety claims, or because you could accept the occasional spill?

    Did you back “drill” and “industry deregulation” at the same time?

    Why on earth do you think Magic Obama can change the known risks to offshore oil drilling?

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  30. Steve Plunk says:

    JP, I never claimed a liberal cover up of Nashville. Just pointing out how this disaster gets more attention even though most of the oil has remained out to sea. Now we have every two bit college professor speculating on how bad it ‘might’ be.

    I believe gulf oil rigs generally safe and worth the risk. Drill baby, drill is still a reasonable stance. We don’t ground the airlines every time a plane crashes.

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  31. John Personna says:

    I hope you understand two things: first, BP’s legal strategy is tp “not know” the size of the spill. second, scientsts who study deep sea vents are among the very few with measurement experience.

    “two bit” where does that come from anyway?

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  32. Juneau: says:

    The government has oversight of all of the systems and procedures that failed. The government has had this oversight for decades.

    The failures are of systems that fall under the inspection regimen dictated by regulation. To say that Republicans or the GOP is supporting a scenario that either enabled this or would facilitate a similar disaster in the future, is nothing but pure factual ignorance of the current regulatory environment and political posturing.

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