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Gulf Oil Spill Update: Way Worse Than They Told Us

The estimates of the amount of oil spilling in the Gulf of Mexico keep going up, amid BP statements that the amount can't be measured easily, and aren't important, anyway.

When estimates of the size of BP's oil spill in the Gulf quickly shifted from no leak to 1,000 barrels a day to 5,000 barrels a day -- with BP telling members of Congress the daily flow could rise up to 60,000 barrels -- it was pretty obvious the estimates weren't entirely reliable.

As it turns out, after BP finally released 30 seconds of video footage of the spill on Wednesday, one expert told NPR that crude was gushing out at a rate of 70,000 barrels a day, which is even worse than the worst-case estimate BP gave lawmakers. According to the experts cited by NPR, the spill is "already far larger than the 1989 Exxon Valdez accident in Alaska, which spilled at least 250,000 barrels of oil."

The New York Times points out that BP has repeatedly claimed that "there's just no way to measure" the leak, and said that its highest priority has been stopping it -- not measuring it. The government, much like the company, has been slow to seek better measurements of the spill, according to The Times, even though scientists stood ready with techniques to do so:

[F]or decades, specialists have used a technique that is almost tailor-made for the problem. With undersea gear that resembles the ultrasound machines in medical offices, they measure the flow rate from hot-water vents on the ocean floor. Scientists said that such equipment could be tuned to allow for accurate measurement of oil and gas flowing from the well.

Richard Camilli and Andy Bowen, of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, who have routinely made such measurements, spoke extensively to BP last week, Mr. Bowen said. They were poised to fly to the gulf to conduct volume measurements.

But they were contacted late in the week and told not to come, at around the time BP decided to lower a large metal container to try to capture the leak. That maneuver failed. They have not been invited again.

"The government and BP are calling the shots, so I will have to respect their judgment," Dr. Camilli said.

Both the White House and the press pressured BP to release a video of oil flow. (BP said it released the video on only Wednesday because it hadn't received requests for the video until Monday, though ABC News reported that it, along with other news organizations, had been requesting the video for weeks.)

The company has tried and so far failed to stop the gusher. After a containment dome specifically built for this spill was set aside, BP tossed around several ideas, including using a smaller containment box, plugging the well with golf balls and rope, and using a smaller pipe to stop the leak.

This week, a BP executive told the U.S. House Energy Committee that the company knew of problems hours before the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig, after the well had failed a pressure test.

In an interview with the Guardian published today, BP's CEO Tony Hayward admitted his job was on the line because of the Deepwater Horizon disaster while expressing confidence that efforts to stop the spill were progressing.

He also told the Guardian that the spill is "relatively tiny" compared to the total volume of the Gulf of Mexico, which he called "a very big ocean."

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