Oil leak may be much larger than thought

NEW ORLEANS — While BP is capturing more oil from its blown-out well with every passing day, scientists on a team analyzing the flow said Tuesday that the amount of crude still escaping into the Gulf of Mexico may be considerably greater than what the government and the company have claimed.

The cap that was put on the ruptured BP well last week is capturing better than half of the oil, based on the government’s estimate that about 600,000 to 1.2 million gallons a day are leaking from the bottom of the sea.

To install the containment device snugly, BP engineers had to cut away the twisted and broken well pipe. That increased the flow of oil, similar to what happens when a kink is removed from a garden hose. BP and others warned that would happen, and the government said the increase amounted to about 20 percent.

A team of researchers and government officials run by the director of the U.S. Geological Survey is studying the flow rate and hopes to present its findings in the coming days .

Team member and Purdue University engineering professor Steve Wereley said it was a “reasonable conclusion” — but not the team’s final one — to say that the daily flow rate is, in fact, somewhere between 798,000 gallons and 1.8 million gallons.

“BP is claiming they’re capturing the majority of the flow, which I think is going to be proven wrong in short order,” Wereley said. “Why don’t they show the American public the before-and-after shots?”

The most recent government estimates put the total amount of oil lost at 23.7 million to 51.5 million gallons.

Doug Suttles, BP’s chief operating officer, struck an upbeat tone Tuesday about the anticipated progress of the oil containment, saying that the spill “should be down to a relative trickle by (next) Monday or Tuesday.”

BP later sought to clarify his comments, saying it believes it can make progress in the next week in reducing the flow, it will take more time to reach the point that the spill amounts to a trickle.

In other developments Tuesday:

  • A decade ago, U.S. government regulators warned that a major deepwater oil spill could start with a fire on a drilling rig, prove hard to stop and cause extensive damage to fish eggs and wetlands because there were few good ways to capture oil underwater, documents show.

    The disaster scenario — contained in a May 2000 offshore drilling plan for the Shell oil company — came from the Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service, the agency that’s come under withering criticism for being too cozy with industries it was supposed to be regulating.

    The 2000 warning, however, indicates that some federal regulators were well aware of the potential hazards of deepwater oil production in its early years, experts and former MMS officials told McClatchy News Services.

    The Shell plan described a worst-case scenario for a deepwater blowout that in several instances reads like a preview of what’s happened since the Deepwater Horizon rig began spewing crude into the Gulf seven weeks ago.

    The Interior Department issued new rules Tuesday intended to clarify steps that oil and gas companies must complete before drilling wells in the Gulf of Mexico.

  • BP says it will get rid of some of the oil being recaptured from a spill in the Gulf of Mexico by burning it off. BP spokesman Max McGahan said the company will process some of the flow by sending it to a burner that turns it into a combustible fog and ignites it. McGahan says the rig carrying the burner will be moved away from the main leak site so flames and heat do not endanger other vessels.

    Net revenue from any oil collected and sold from BP’s leaking oil well will go toward a fund that helps restore and improve wildlife habitat in the states most damaged by the spill, BP said.

  • Senate Democrats brought up legislation Tuesday coupling a fivefold increase in the tax that oil companies pay into a spill liability fund. Republicans are generally opposed to the measure because it contains almost $60 billion in tax hikes. The legislation closely resembles a bill that passed the House last month.

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