WASHINGTON — BP's runaway Deepwater Horizon well may be spewing what the company once-called its worst case scenario — 100,000 barrels a day, a member of the government panel tasked with determining the size of the spill told McClatchy Monday.
"In the data I've seen, there's nothing inconsistent with BP's worst case scenario," Ira Leifer, an associate researcher at the Marine Science Institute of the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a member of the government's Flow Rate Technical Group, told McClatchy.
Leifer said that based on satellite data he's examined, the rate of flow from the well has been increasing over time, especially since BP's "top kill" effort failed last month to stanch the flow. The decision last week to sever the well's damaged riser pipe from the its blowout preventer in order to install a "top hat" containment device has increased the flow still more _ far more, Leifer said, than the 20 percent that BP and the Obama administration predicted.
Leifer noted that BP had estimated before the April 20 explosion that caused the leak that a freely flowing pipe from the well would release 100,000 barrels of oil a day in the worst-case scenario.
The oil was not freely flowing before the top kill or before they cut the pipe, Leifer said, but once the riser pipe was cleared, there was little blocking the oil's rise to the top of the blowout preventer. Video images confirm that the flow of black oil is unimpeded.
"If the pipe behaved as a worst-case estimate you would have no visual change in the flow, and I don't see any obvious visual change," Leifer said. "How much larger I don't know but let's just quote BP."
How much oil is gushing from the well has been the subject of heated debate for weeks, with independent scientists suggesting that as much as 95,000 barrels could be gushing into the Gulf of Mexico each day. For more than a month BP and the Obama administration placed the figure at 5,000 barrels a day.
On Monday, Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the Obama administration's point man on the unfolding disaster, said that the government and BP still don't know how much oil is escaping. The "top hat" containment device captured 11,000 barrels of oil on Sunday, Allen said, and that BP was moving a second ship into position above the well to bring to 20,000 barrels the amount of crude that could be processed daily.
Allen also said that BP is moving a production platform with far greater capacity to the Gulf though that equipment may not be in place for several weeks.
“We just know that's their capacity. We still haven’t established what the flow rate is,” he said. “That is the big unknown that we’re trying to hone in and get the exact numbers on."
Even so, BP’s videos of the gusher showed black oil continuing to flow heavily from all around the wellhead as the crude leaks from around the cap’s edges.
A team of experts from government science agencies and universities estimated last week that at a minimum 12,000 to 25,000 barrels a day were flowing from the well, but the team declined to estimate an upper end for the flow because the information they received from BP was inadequate.
Leifer, who is described in the flow rate's preliminary report released last week as a "world reknown researcher" who's published more than 60 scientific articles, said BP still has not delivered the data that scientists need for an accurate appraisal of the spill's size.
"We're still waiting," he said.
Allen said that one reason it was important to be able to estimate the rate of flow was so that officials could know how much flow the cap could handle and how much would be lost into the Gulf. Officials say the gusher won’t be over until BP finishes drilling relief wells, probably in August.
Allen said the containment cap would have to be watched “very, very closely.”
“We ought to be ruthless in our oversight of BP, and trying to understand what oil is not being contained that's leaking out around that rubber seal, once we know what that flow rate is,” he said. “And we need to understand completely that if we have severe weather in the form of a hurricane, there may be times where we’re going to have to disconnect that operation and re-establish, and during that time we’re going to have oil coming to the surface again.”
Allen said early Monday that BP had closed one of the four vents on the cap and would try to close the others to get more oil flowing to the containment vessel. However, Wells, the BP vice president, later in the day said that the company had changed its view about the need to close the vents.
At first glance, it seemed that closing the vents was necessary to maximize the amount of oil and gas that could be collected, but that didn’t prove to be the case, he said. Keeping some vents open gave the company more flexibility when it had to shut down temporarily during a storm, as it did during a thunderstorm Sunday, he said.
Allen and Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, said during the news briefing that they didn’t know whether BP was required to pay federal royalties on the oil it was collecting from the runaway well.
McClatchy reported Thursday that BP stood to make millions of dollars on the oil. The Department of the Interior’s Minerals Management Service wouldn't say at that time whether BP would pay royalties to the U.S government on the oil that it captures.
Department of Interior spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff said Monday, however: “The Department of the Interior will ensure that all royalties owed to the United States are collected.” MORE FROM MCCLATCHY