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“…as many as 40,000 barrels of oil have been flowing daily…”

Gulf oil spill figures may be double earlier estimates

Richard Simon, Betina Boxall and Margot Roosevelt

June 11, 2010

Reporting from Washington and Los Angeles

Government scientists said Thursday that as many as 40,000 barrels of oil have been flowing daily from the blown-out BP well, doubling earlier estimates and greatly expanding the scope of what is already the largest spill in U.S. history.

The new figures could mean 42 million to 84 million gallons of oil have leaked into the Gulf of Mexico since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on the night of April 20 — with the lowest estimate nearly four times the size of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill.

The flow estimates were released by Marcia McNutt, director of the U.S. Geological Survey, and do not count any increases that may have occurred since the cutting of the well’s riser pipe, a step that was expected to boost the flow.

Teams using a variety of technologies are trying to calculate how much the riser cut has increased the well release, but they will not have that information for several days. “It’s a challenging scientific issue,” McNutt said.

The revised numbers are the latest in a series of estimates that have steadily grown as scientists analyze live video feeds. The earliest figure, 1,000 barrels per day, was supplanted by 5,000 barrels. A government-appointed scientific team then pegged the flow at 12,000 to 19,000 barrels.

That same group has now concluded that “given the limited data available and the small amount of time to process that data, the best estimate for the average flow rate for the leakage … is between 25,000 to 30,000 barrels per day, but could be as low as 20,000 barrels per day or as high as 40,000 barrels per day,” McNutt said in a release.

In a sign of the difficulty of gauging the flow, one team believes that the upper range could be as high as 50,000 barrels. There are 42 gallons in a barrel of oil.

BP has said it will be unable to plug the well before August, when relief wells will be completed. But a containment cap installed on the well last week is capturing about 15,000 barrels, or 630,000 gallons, a day and pumping it to a ship at the surface. Officials predict that by next week they will be able to collect or burn off nearly double that amount.

Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the administration’s point man for the spill, sent a letter Thursday to Carl-Henric Svanberg, BP’s board chairman, summoning “any appropriate officials from BP” to meet Wednesday with President Obama and other senior officials.

“The BP Deepwater Horizon spill has had a profound impact on Americans living in the gulf region and time is of the essence in resolving these issues,” Allen wrote.

Family members of victims of the rig explosion met Thursday with Obama at the White House. They wore blue ribbons, each with 11 stars — one for each of the workers killed.

Peggy Kemp, whose son Roy died in the explosion, said Obama assured them that the families “will not be forgotten.” Donald Clark’s widow, Sheila, said Obama also said that “everything he can do he will do.”

The updated flow figures come as Congress approved legislation to lift a limit on how much can be paid out from a dwindling emergency oil spill response fund. The bill now goes to Obama, who is expected to sign the measure. Current law caps the payout at $100 million per incident. The fund now contains $1.6 billion.

Although BP will ultimately be held responsible for full damages, lawmakers said lifting the cap would prevent delayed responses to the spill by federal agencies, including the Coast Guard and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“The laws … have not been adequate for a crisis of this magnitude,” Obama told reporters after a meeting Thursday with congressional leaders. “The Oil Pollution Act was passed at a time when people didn’t envision drilling four miles under the sea for oil.”

Obama said the law would be updated “to make sure that the people of the gulf — the fishermen, the hotel owners, families who are dependent for their livelihoods in the gulf — that they are all made whole, and that we are in a much better position to respond to any such crisis in the future.”

The bill would give federal authorities more latitude to dip into the fund, which is fed by an 8-cent per barrel oil tax. Congress is considering raising the tax in the wake of the gulf spill. The action comes a week after the government sent BP a $69-million bill.

BP estimates it has spent more than $1 billion so far responding to the spill, a figure that it likely to rise considerably as more claims are paid out and lawsuits move through the courts.

The oil giant agreed Thursday to speed up payments to people whose livelihoods have been damaged by the spill, which has closed a third of the gulf to fishing and scared away tourists from shoreline resorts.

Federal officials also said Thursday that BP has agreed to provide the public with more information on the status of claims. Almost 42,000 claims have been submitted, and more than 20,000 payments totaling upwards of $53 million have been made, according to BP.

With another delegation of senators preparing to fly to the Gulf Coast, Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser pleaded, “Please don’t take flyovers of Plaquemines Parish. It’s an insult to the local people. You can’t see it from the air. You’ve got to go down there and touch it. You’ve got to pull into that marsh and see there is absolutely no life. Everything is dead.”

Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of Atlantic Coast senators asked federal officials for the “statistical probabilities” of the spill hitting their coasts and recommendations on how their states should prepare for a “worst-case scenario.”

“If there is any real risk to these communities from a spill that right now remains thousands of miles away, we need to know as soon as possible,” the senators wrote.

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