For some reason, BP thinks it is in their best interests to pretend that the continuing Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is just a trickle, and not a torrent. I imagine this stems from their conviction that, without their cooperation, it will be pretty much impossible for anyone to ever come up with an accurate measure of how much oil is actually being spilled. Serious obfuscation and serious underestimation now may help to seriously reduce the damages they eventually end up paying.
Trickle-not-a-torrent seems to have been BP’s strategy from the very outset. To see how low a number they could get away with, they didn’t really put out an estimate of their own to begin with. On April 24, the Coast Guard — which is internationally renowned for their expertise in estimating the size of deep sea oil spills — rushed in where BP feared to tread, estimating that the spill rate was a mere 1,000 barrels a day: “Guard officials on Saturday estimated that as much as 1,000 barrels of oil is escaping each day from the well head on the ocean floor“.
To the collective leadership of BP, that must have come as manna from heaven. 1115′s deep undercover fly-on-the-wall army reports that the collective leadership spontaneously went down on bended knee, and sent up a fervent “Thank you, thank you, Sam-I-am!”
BP officials eagerly embraced the Coast Guard estimate. Especially since it was phrased as “as much as 1,000 barrels of oil is escaping each day”. To have 1,000 barrels a day presented as the worst case scenario must have exceeded their wildest dreams. The AP updated its story to read: “Coast guard and company officials estimate that as much as 1,000 barrels of oil is leaking each day after studying information from remotely operated vehicles and the size of the oil slick surrounding the blast site.”
Clearly, BP wasn’t going to revise the estimate upwards unless they were forced to do so, say by a credible source producing a much higher estimate. No doubt to BP’s chagrin, the 1,000 barrels per day estimate didn’t hold up for very long. The NOAA upped the ante on April 28:
In a hastily called news conference, Rear Adm. Mary E. Landry of the Coast Guard said a scientist from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had concluded that oil is leaking at the rate of 5,000 barrels a day, not 1,000 as had been estimated.
At this point, the media pretty much stopped reporting the continuing evolution of the spill rate estimate (till NPR came along last Friday, and reignited the debate — giving BP serious corporate conniptions in the process — by presenting 70,000 barrels a day as a scientific estimate to be taken seriously; but we’ll come to that by-and-by). However, the estimate did indeed continue to evolve.
The 5,000 barrels a day estimate may have come from the NOAA, but it was evidently just a back-of-the-envelope calculation (and an amateur one, at that):
The figure of 5,000 barrels a day was hastily produced by government scientists in Seattle. It appears to have been calculated using a method that is specifically not recommended for major oil spills.
On April 30, the WSJ reported (subscription required) that “Ian MacDonald, professor of oceanography at Florida State University who specializes in tracking ocean oil seeps from satellite imagery” had concluded the “oil spill could be leaking at a rate of 25,000 barrels a day, five times the government’s current estimate”. Ian MacDonald is also certified by the NYT as “an expert in the analysis of oil slicks”.
A BP statement on May 4 (made initially in a briefing to members of Congress) about the worst case scenario, which should have raised all kinds of alarm bells about the true flow rate, somehow went hugely underreported:
An executive with BP Plc
on Wednesday said a ruptured well in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico could gush at 60,000 barrels per day if all the equipment on the sea floor restricting the current flow were removed.
“If the existing BOP (blow-out preventer) and all the equipment were removed, it could get up to that rate,” Doug Suttles, a BP executive said when asked at a media briefing about the company’s worst-case scenario analysis.
At this point, the official estimate embraced jointly by the government and BP was still 5,000 barrels a day. Apparently, almost no one in the press stopped to consider how much of an impact “the equipment on the sea floor restricting the current flow” (by accidentally getting in the way) could realistically have on the flow rate. The question was pretty simple: “Could the blown blow-out-preventer and other unspecified sea-floor equipment really cut the rate of flow by more than 90%?” One suspects that if the question had been asked to experts at the time, the answers would have been pretty straightforward.
Enter NPR with its game-changing report on May 14:
The amount of oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico may be at least 10 times the size of official estimates, according to an exclusive analysis conducted for NPR.
At NPR‘s request, experts examined video that BP released Wednesday. Their findings suggest the BP spill is already far larger than the 1989 Exxon Valdez accident in Alaska, which spilled at least 250,000 barrels of oil.
BP has said repeatedly that there is no reliable way to measure the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico by looking at the oil gushing out of the pipe. But scientists say there are actually many proven techniques for doing just that.
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.
BP, of course, strenuously disputes these numbers.
“We’ve said all along that there’s no way to estimate the flow coming out of the pipe accurately,” said Bill Salvin, a BP spokesman.
Yes, indeed. Said all along. And hoped. And prayed.
A more formal statement came from Bob Dudley, BP managing director for the Americas and Asia:
“Well that’s not what our experts, multiple experts, not only from BP, and the industry say,” said Bob Dudley, BP managing director for the Americas and Asia. “This crude is what’s called a light-sweet crude. It has lots of gas and when it comes out, it expands very rapidly, a little bit like bubbles in a soda pop. So it’s very difficult to look at it and say that the volume will be much higher. We certainly don’t see that at the surface.”
(At the time of going to press, we are still trying to confirm rumors that, in his college days, Dudley was known far and wide as Bullshit Bob.)
The key to BP’s current obfuscation strategy seems to be that last sentence. They want to focus only on what can be seen at the surface. Here’s an official spokesperson pronouncement on the subject:
BP spokeswoman Rebecca Bernhard said the company is standing by the 5,000-barrel figure. “We look at the fact that it’s coming out of the riser (pipe) in several ways. We look at it from satellite imagery, overflight observations and on-the-water observations.”
She said none of the methods were exact. “We said that from the beginning.”
They look at it in several ways. All of which involve looking at the surface, preferably from a long way off.
This may be part of the reason why BP thinks attention should be focused just on the surface:
Rising through 5000 feet of water, the oil is going through a process…call[ed] Fractioning. Literally the tremendous pressure and temperature [cause]…the oil and Natural Gas [to] change on their way up. The very light, easy-to-evaporate parts are all that is rising to the surface. The heavy oil isn’t even getting to the top…the chemicals added at the well head to disburse the oil, speed this process up. Because of this fractioning, what you see from the air on the surface of the water represents maybe just 20% of the volume of the various types of oil in that area.
The NYT report about huge underwater oil plumes seems to confirm this hypothesis:
Scientists are finding enormous oil plumes in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico, including one as large as 10 miles long, 3 miles wide and 300 feet thick in spots. The discovery is fresh evidence that the leak from the broken undersea well could be substantially worse than estimates that the government and BP have given.
“There’s a shocking amount of oil in the deep water, relative to what you see in the surface water,” said Samantha Joye, a researcher at the University of Georgia who is involved in one of the first scientific missions to gather details about what is happening in the gulf. “There’s a tremendous amount of oil in multiple layers, three or four or five layers deep in the water column.”
The plumes are depleting the oxygen dissolved in the gulf, worrying scientists, who fear that the oxygen level could eventually fall so low as to kill off much of the sea life near the plumes.
The plumes were discovered by scientists from several universities working aboard the research vessel Pelican, which sailed from Cocodrie, La., on May 3 and has gathered extensive samples and information about the disaster in the gulf.
Let’s give the last word to BP. This is probably a fitting testimonial to their entire approach to obfuscating and misrepresenting the spill rate:
BP has resisted entreaties from scientists that they be allowed to use sophisticated instruments at the ocean floor that would give a far more accurate picture of how much oil is really gushing from the well.
“The answer is no to that,” a BP spokesman, Tom Mueller, said on Saturday. “We’re not going to take any extra efforts now to calculate flow there at this point.”
No, not as long as we can Minimize, Obfuscate, Misrepresent. Yes, it’s the “Hi Mom!” strategy.