Energy

Actual Size of Gulf Disaster Still Unknown

| Mon Jul. 19, 2010 12:55 PM EDT

There may be concerns about whether the well is safe, but for now, BP has closed in the Gulf gusher. Yet even after three months of leaking, we still don't have a solid estimate of how much oil was escaping the well for all that time. The official government flow-rate team last released an estimate on June 15, leaving the range of possible estimates quite large: from 35,000 barrels per day up to 60,000. But with the well now closed in, might we never get an accurate idea of how much oil has been dumped in the Gulf?

Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who has been going gangbusters on making BP and the federal government own up to the reality of this disaster, sent a letter on Monday to Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, the federal incident commander, asking whether closing in the well will make it impossible to know how much oil is leaking. It had previously been indicated that the new cap would allow them to pump all of the oil to the surface for collection, which would have offered indisputable figures. Now that BP plans to contain it, Markey worries, we will never know the real figure.

"By shutting in this well, we could be shutting off our last best chance to determine what BP could pay in government fines," said Markey.

In his letter to Allen, Markey suggests that, should the reported problems with the well continue, BP should instead try the collection option: "If it is necessary to again allow the well to flow, either because a decision to keep it shut in indefinitely is unsound, or in order to conduct the relief well bottom kill‚ then there would be no reason at that point for not taking the opportunity to conduct a 100 percent hydrocarbon collection test."

"It is imperative that we understand your current plans and be able to assess the ramifications of different options at this point," Markey continues. "I am also concerned, as I know you are, that continuing to keep the well fully shut in, could pose risks of additional problems with well integrity, an issue that I have raised with both you and BP in separate letters over the past few weeks."

Allen has also expressed concerns about the integrity of the well, and has demanded more information from BP about possible leaks and the company's plans for dealing with problems.

BP has, of course, been coy about how much oil is leaking from the well. The company originally said just 1,000 barrels was leaking every day. BP later upped the estimate to 5,000 barrels, which the government's official team now says is likely less than one-sixth of the actual amount. BP faces stiff penalties per barrel—up to $4,300 each for Clean Water Act violations alone. The Department of Interior last week announced that BP will also be expected to pay royalties on all the oil it's dumped into the Gulf. (The typical royalty rate is 18.75 percent of the going rate for a barrel of oil, currently about $76 a barrel—so, about $14.25 a barrel.) In any rate, how much BP will have to shell out is almost entirely reliant on getting a realistic, concrete estimate—and we still don't know if we'll ever get one.