BP Finds Limited Success in Stopping the Oil Flow, but Major Questions Remain

Yesterday, BP reported that it had successfully inserted a specially designed tube into the leaking riser pipe and had begun drawing some of the leaking oil and gas through a mile-long pipe up to a tanker on the surface. According to BP, about 1,000 barrels of oil a day are being collected, although the system is still being optimized to collect more. That's 20 percent of the estimated 5,000 barrels a day officials say are leaking from the well. But how much this is actually doing to curb the flow is still an open question, given emerging evidence that the oil may be gushing from the well at a much higher rate.

The 5,000 barrel-a-day estimate was generated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) based on surveys of the surface slick, but many independent scientists question this approach and say that more robust analyses show that the magnitude of the leak is being severely underestimated, The New York Times and NPR reported Friday. New evidence of greater flow from the well came over the weekend, when researchers discovered massive plumes of oil underwater. Although oil generally floats to the surface, the use of subsea dispersants, a controversial approach to minimizing the spill's impact that was just approved last week by the EPA, could be preventing a substantial amount of oil from surfacing (both a good and a bad thing—good because it means less oil washing up on shore, but bad because it could be harming the deep-water environment).

But what's disconcerting amid all this is that BP seems relatively unconcerned with updating the official estimate of the oil flow. BP officials say that this is a low priority because having a more exact measure of the spill's magnitude wouldn't change anything about the response. And the company still maintains that there is no better way of estimating the flow. "We have said from the beginning—not just us but also the Coast Guard and NOAA—that it's impossible to predict the rate of the flow from the end of the riser," BP spokesman Mark Proegler told NEWSWEEK.

Yet that still doesn't explain why it would turn away outside help or refuse to release requested video footage of the leak that could allow outside scientists to make more exact calculations. Many scientists, such as Richard Camilli and Andy Bowen of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, have volunteered their services but have been turned down.

You'd think that BP would want all the help it could get—especially when it wouldn't require redirecting existing resources. True, having a more accurate—probably larger—estimate wouldn't have much of an impact on the response efforts (there's already plenty of urgency), but it would be useful at the very least for the sake of transparency, which the company says it values highly. "BP has been extraordinarily transparent in everything that we're doing," Proegler insists. "In terms of assessing all this, we have a team from around the world in Houston—scientists, academics, other oil companies."

Representative Edward Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of the Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment, accused BP in a statement yesterday of "burying its head in the sand" and refusing to seek a more accurate assessment of the amount of oil being released. Last week, Markey requested that BP provide more information about the size of the leak, but has gotten no substantiative response to date.

The bottom line is that it seems unlikely that the 5,000-barrels-a-day estimate will be updated anytime soon. But the (at least limited) success of the riser insertion tube is a step in the right direction toward containing the flow, and BP is moving ahead with plans for a "top kill" of the well within the next week or so, in which heavy mud and concrete will be injected through the blowout preventer with the goal of sealing the well. That could end the spill once and for all, but until then the riser insertion tube may be the best option for handling what may be an even larger problem than previously thought.

See the history of how things went from bad to worse in our oil spill timeline gallery