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Gulf Oil Spill Estimate Revised Again

DEBORAH AMOS, host:

It's taken many weeks to figure out how much oil is leaking each day.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And NPR science correspondent Richard Harris is tracking why it matters that it's taken so long.

Richard, good morning.

RICHARD HARRIS: Good morning.

AMOS: Richard, the first BP estimates started out at a thousand barrels a day. The last time you were with us, that number had jumped to 20 to 40 thousand barrels a day. And you are back again.

HARRIS: I am indeed. The new figure as of yesterday is now 35 to 60 thousand barrels a day. And this is a higher number for a couple of reasons. First of all, the previous numbers were based on an estimate of how much oil was flowing out before BP cut off that bent off pipe, and there was always an assumption that some increase of oil would occur once they cut off that kinked pipe. And so thats part of the reason.

It's also true that part of the reason that this number is so much higher is they have used another method, which they put actually pressure valves down around the upside down funnel thats been collecting the oil. They put some pressure valves -gauges inside and outside - to measure the pressure. And...

INSKEEP: Like a tire gauge.

HARRIS: Yeah. Yeah, actually, and you can see it on these rovers underwater. And essentially you can figure out exactly how much pressure was inside and out.

Now, this gave a higher number, although a much less precise number, which is why we're seeing such a big spread in - you know, 35 to 60 thousand barrels. Thats a pretty big range.

INSKEEP: You know, when I saw that number, 60,000 barrels, this morning, I just, multiplying it by 55 to get the number of gallons, it went into the millions. I thought I had the wrong number of zeroes. I mean, this is a stunning amount of oil.

HARRIS: It is crazy. And one thing that the oil industry does to confuse us a little bit is they have 42 gallons per barrel. But when you run it through, you get two to four Olympic-size swimming pools, something like that, in that range, which doesn't sound like all much. But when you think of the fact that the oil ends up being an incredibly thin layer on the water, that can stretch for many, many, many miles. So so that's one way of looking at it.

Another way of looking at it is how much oil and gas our cars use over the course of a day, and that much oil, we go through that much in about four minutes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

AMOS: But if this increased number is due to BP cutting off that pipe, was that such a good idea?

HARRIS: That's a really good question, 'cause cutting off the pipe did enable them to capture about 15,000 barrels a day that they weren't previously capturing. They were capturing 2,000 before that. So - so they got some benefit from cutting off the pipe. But on the other hand, it's looking now like it's entirely possible that it increased the flow by 20,000 barrels. So it might actually be worse now than before.

We don't really know because these ranges of numbers are so wide we don't really know what the truth was before and after. And one reason we don't know what the truth was before and after is that BP and, in fact, the federal government did not work very hard to figure that out.

Actually, (unintelligible) Oceanographic Institution offered to send a little mini-sub down there to do some measurements before they cut off the pipe, and BP at first said, yeah, that sounds like a good idea; and then they said, no, never mind. And so we never really got very good measurements before they cut the pipe. We're still struggling, obviously, to get better measurements now.

INSKEEP: Well, let me ask about that, because people in the federal government - and I'm paraphrasing here - said as the estimates began to change, as there began to be controversy over how large this was, that it doesn't really matter how much oil is coming out. We're already doing everything we possibly can. Has that actually turned out to be the case that it didn't matter exactly how much oil was coming out?

HARRIS: Well, it may not have mattered so much in terms of the response at the surface, because they really did sort of treat this as a worst-case spill, and obviously they couldn't react with a hundred percent response, but they did move very quickly on that. But I think in terms of getting a response, in terms of thinking ahead for what they're doing underwater, I think there are regrets now about not knowing what these numbers are.

Because BP is now not in a position to gather as much oil as we now understand is coming out of that well. And they're scrambling right now to try to improve that oil collection system. But if they had known these numbers a month ago, they could've had a response right now.

INSKEEP: They could have, for example, brought that collection ship down from the North Sea that is now on its way to the Gulf.

HARRIS: That's right. That could've been in place a while ago.

INSKEEP: Now, is oil the only thing that seems to be coming up out of this well right now?

HARRIS: No. That's - in fact, the whole spill is oil and gas mixed together. In fact, there's a whole lot of natural gas and it's important for us to remember: the oil, of course, washes up on the shores and does all that nasty stuff to the beaches, but the gas is also quite significant.

And Ian McDonald at Florida State University has done a little back-of-the-envelope calculation. And he figures when you add oil and gas together, we're talking 10,000 tons of hydrocarbons a day coming out of this well. So a lot of that natural gas ends up dissolving in the seawater. It does stuff that we don't really very well understand. There's a ship out there right now doing some research to try to figure that out. But let's not forget the gas. That's a big deal too.

INSKEEP: Richard, thanks.

AMOS: Thank you. Richard Harris, he reports on the oil spill for us.

HARRIS: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Award-winning journalist Richard Harris has reported on a wide range of topics in science, medicine and the environment since he joined NPR in 1986. In early 2014, his focus shifted from an emphasis on climate change and the environment to biomedical research.
Steve Inskeep
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
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