flow of oil from BP's blown-out well.
Three different groups of scientists making educated guesses have come
up with upper and lower ranges that go as low as 12,600 barrels a day
and as high as 50,000 barrels a day. Marcia McNutt, the federal
official charged with determining the flow rate, cited the range of
about 20,000 to 40,000 barrels a day as the official estimate.
All those numbers come with the caveat that they estimate the flow
from the well before a kinked riser pipe was lopped off on June 3, a
move that inevitably increased the flow, although to what extent
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told lawmakers on Wednesday that the
riser cut increased flow four to five percent -- though given the
extraordinary range of guesses involved, it's hard to fathom how he
could be so sure.
The new numbers could still be low. One member of the flow group told
reporters earlier this week that the flow could well be 100,000
barrels a day. But the actual flow rates are certainly much higher
than the 5,000 barrel a day figure that the government stuck to long
after the first video from the well head made it clear the real number
was magnitudes higher.
"This is obviously a challenging scientific issue, since the leak is
located a mile beneath the ocean," McNutt, the head of the U.S.
Geologic Service, told reporters in a conference call.
One of the teams of scientists -- led by Richard Camilli of the Woods
Hole Oceanographic Institution -- is new to the government's
estimating group. McNutt said that team is using acoustic technology
to measure the flow rate.
Yet another team, this one led by Energy Secretary and Nobel Laureate
Steven Chu, is analyzing differential pressure readings they demanded
BP provide from both inside and outside the new containment cap, but
McNutt said their measurements are not yet complete.
These estimates still carry with them a great deal of uncertainty. One
group estimated a range from 12,600 to 21,500 barrels a day; another
estimated a range from 25,000 to 50,000 barrels a day. In other words,
both of them can't be right.
At 40,000 barrels (1.7 million gallons) a day, over 52 days, that
would mean the blown-out well has belched over 2 million barrels (88
million gallons) of oil into the Gulf of Mexico -- and somewhere
around that much gas as well. The 1989 Exxon Valdez spill was
estimated at about 250,000 barrels, which would make this spill at
least 8 times as big, and counting.
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