NPR

Scientist: BP's Oil Spill Estimates Improbable

Gas from the damaged Deepwater Horizon wellhead is burned by the drill ship Discoverer Enterprise on Sunday in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast Louisiana. (U.S. Coast Guard via Getty Images)

An independent scientist says the Gulf of Mexico oil spill appears to be even larger than he previously thought, based on analysis of a video released by the Senate. The video shows a dramatic gusher of oil coming from near the well's ill-fated blowout preventer.

Steve Wereley went from being a respected but little known engineering professor at Purdue University to being the center of attention last week after he produced a startling new estimate of the size of the spill. Using a well-established scientific technique to measure flow from the biggest of three leaks near the seafloor, he determined that the flow coming out of the end of the pipe could be 10 times the size of the official figure.

Wereley has now analyzed video of a second leak. At a hearing on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, he said that leak alone appears to be bigger than the official estimate of 5,000 barrels a day.

"What I get is 25,000 barrels a day coming out of that tiny hole -- that's a 1.2-inch hole," he said, adding that it seemed "incomprehensible."

Wereley says the oil in this part of the pipe is under tremendous pressure. Add his current figure to last week's estimate of about 70,000 barrels a day, and his total approaches 100,000 barrels a day. And, there's another leak he has yet to analyze.

Wereley's flow rate includes both gas and oil, so he says his figures may come down once he sees enough video to be able to quantify the amount of gas.

"But from what I see in the videos, I don't see the numbers coming down that significantly," he says.

Measuring Oil Flow

Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) called Wereley to talk to his House Energy subcommittee after noting the huge discrepancy between Wereley's numbers and BP's oft-quoted estimate, which is based on a survey of oil on the ocean surface.

When asked Wednesday what the likelihood was that BP's figures were accurate, Wereley said he didn't see "any possibility, any scenario under which their number is accurate."

Wereley told the committee he would like clean video from BP -- and lots of it -- in order to sort out how much of the flow is oil versus gas and to figure out if the flow has varied since it began nearly a month ago.

BP has started to provide more video to a Senate committee. But the oil company rejected a plan that would have produced an independent measure of the oil flow.

Richard Camilli of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution told the committee that he and a colleague had offered to put together an instrument for BP that uses sound waves to measure underwater oil flow. He said BP was interested for reasons related to broken equipment, not the environmental consequences. Camilli said he got an e-mail from BP at 3 a.m. May 5 essentially giving the thumbs up, but at 1 p.m. the next day, BP sent a message putting the project on hold.

BP said it was turning its attention to the containment dome, which was unsuccessful.

"Our team was thanked politely by BP representatives for our efforts, and I've had no further communication with BP since May 6," Camilli said.

Camilli said he hoped to use the information about oil flow to help scientists measure the magnitude of a spill that's not only on the surface of the ocean but also spreading deep underwater. "Understanding and knowing the total amount of oil that has been released is going to be critical so that we know how much was on the surface, we know how much remains subsurface, and we can track it and attempt to mitigate it."

Priorities

BP's position all along has been that it is making an all-out effort to contain the spill, so putting a number on the outflow isn't a priority. Markey took issue with that.

"This faulty logic that BP is using, of course, is unfortunately raising real concerns that they are hiding the full extent of the potential damage of this leak," he said.

Markey scored one small victory Wednesday: The Coast Guard told him he could post BP's live video of the oil and gas spewing out of the pipe on his congressional website.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

LYNN NEARY, host:

And I'm Lynn Neary. An independent scientist says the Gulf oil spill appears to be even larger than he had previously thought. That's based on video the U.S. Senate released Tuesday showing a dramatic gusher of oil coming from near the well's ill-fated blowout preventer. The scientist announced his updated figures yesterday at a hearing on Capitol Hill. NPR's Richard Harris was there.

RICHARD HARRIS: Steve Wereley went from being a respected but little known engineering professor at Purdue University to being the center of attention last week. His claim to fame was producing for NPR a startling new estimate of the size of the Gulf oil spill. He said the flow coming out the end of the pipe could well be 10 times the size of the official figure.

He used a well-established scientific technique called particle image velocimetry�to measure flow from the largest of three leaks near the seafloor.

Wereley has now analyzed the video of a second leak. And at a Congressional hearing he said that leak alone appears to be bigger than the official estimate of 5,000 barrels a day.

Professor STEVE WERELEY (Purdue University): What I get is 25,000 barrels a day coming out of that tiny hole - that's a 1.2-inch hole - and it seems incomprehensible that so much oil would be coming out of that hole.

HARRIS: But Wereley says the oil in this part of the pipe is under tremendous pressure. Add to that last week's estimate of about 70,000 barrels a day and his total is now approaching 100,000 barrels a day. And there's still another leak he hasn't even analyzed yet.

Wereley's flow rate includes both gas and oil, so he says his figures may come down once he sees enough video to be able to quantify the amount of gas.

Prof. WERELEY: But from what I see in the videos, I don't see them coming down - the numbers coming down that significantly.

HARRIS: Congressman Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, called Wereley to talk to his committee. Markey noted the huge discrepancy between Wereley's numbers and BP's oft-quoted guesstimate, which is based on a survey of oil on the ocean surface.

Representative ED MARKEY (Democrat, Massachusetts): What is the likelihood that BP is accurate?

Prof. WERELEY: I don't see any possibility, any scenario under which their number is accurate.

HARRIS: Wereley told the committee he would like clean video from BP and lots of it in order to sort out how much of the flow is oil versus gas and to figure out if the flow has varied since it began nearly a month ago.

BP has started to provide more video to a Senate committee. But the oil company rejected a plan that would have produced an independent measure of the oil flow.

Richard Camilli from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution told the committee he and a colleague had offered to put together an instrument that uses sound waves to measure underwater oil flow. He said BP was interested for reasons related to their broken equipment, not the environmental consequences. Camilli said at 3:00 a.m. on May 5th he got an email from BP essentially giving the thumbs up. But then...

Mr. RICHARD CAMILLI (Woods Hold Oceanographic Institution): At 1:00 p.m. the next day, BP sent a message putting the project on hold.

HARRIS: BP said it was turning its attention to the containment dome. Turns out that didn't work. But even so...

Mr. CAMILLI: Our team was thanked politely by BP representatives for our efforts, and I've had no further communication with BP since May 6.

HARRIS: Camilli said he hoped to use the information about oil flow to help scientists measure the magnitude of a spill that's not only on the surface of the ocean but also spreading deep underwater.

Mr. CAMILLI: Understanding and knowing the total amount of oil that has been released is going to be critical, so that we know how much was on the surface, we know how much remains subsurface, and we can track it and attempt to mitigate it.

HARRIS: BP's position all along has been that they're making an all-out effort to contain the spill, so putting a number on the outflow isn't a priority. Congressman Markey took issue with that.

Rep. MARKEY: This faulty logic that BP is using, of course, is unfortunately raising real concerns that they are hiding the full extent of the potential damage of this leak.

HARRIS: Markey scored one small victory yesterday: The Coast Guard told him he could post BP's live video of the oil and gas spewing out of the pipe on his�congressional website.

Richard Harris, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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