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Doubts Raised About True Size of Gulf Oil Spill

May 14, 2010 | Parker Waichman LLP

It seems estimates about the size of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill could be way off.

BP doesn’t seem to think the true rate of leakage matters. A spokesperson for the company told The New York  Times that “the estimated rate of flow would not affect either the direction or scale of our response."

But environmental groups insist getting an accurate measurement is vital. They point out that this catastrophe is likely to create a template for dealing with deepwater spills in the future. Underestimating the leakage rate will result in a flawed response plan, meaning efforts to contain future spills will likely fail.

For weeks now, the government has put the spill at  5,000 barrels per day- somewhere in the neighborhood of 210,000 gallons.  But according to The New York Times, Ian R. MacDonald, an oceanographer at Florida State University who is an expert in the analysis of oil slicks, said his calculations using satellite imagery show the spill four or five times bigger than the government’s guess.

The 5,000 barrel estimate came from government scientists in Seattle with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who the Times said used a calculation method that is not recommended for large oil spills.

For its part, BP says there is no accurate way to measure the spill. The oil giant says it is more focused on stopping the leak and cleaning up the mess.

But the Times’ piece contradicts BP’s assertions. It seems that there is a technique using undersea gear that could produce an accurate measurement. The gear, which resembles medical ultrasound equipment, measures the flow rate from hot-water vents on the ocean floor. In fact, a team had been contacted late last week to attempt such a measurement, but BP disinvited them, the Times said.

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