The US government cannot count to ten using both hands. Neither can most scientists is would seem. BP plc (NYSE: BP) has the same problem. It released documents yesterday that show the flow of oil from the Deepwater Horizon wreck could be as high as 100,000 barrels a day.
The figure is BP’s worst case, but the worst case has turned out to be too low since the spill began. At first, US government officials put the flow at 5,000 barrels.One of two things are happening with the leak. The first is benign. Even experts cannot count. There are no devices sophisticated enough nor scientists brilliant enough to calculate the real rate at which the pipe at the bottom of the Gulf is gushing crude. Oddly enough, these estimates have always been too low. A few experts have put the rate much higher than official estimates, but their conclusions have been dismissed.
The more ominous possibility is that the rate at which crude is being released is rising and rising very rapidly. If so, the argument that the capture plan of BP will cut the release of oil into the Gulf within a few weeks is flawed. The increase in leaked oil will overwhelm the technology, and the worse case–which is that crude will move up the Eastern Seaboard–becomes a more realistic one.
BP and the federal government claim that they are close to having the spill under control. That is only true if they have guessed right about the size of the leak and guessing is all it is apparently. Those guesses have informed the clean-up plans, the clean-up costs, and the level of risk to the Gulf environment and the region’s beaches. They have driven the hope that the leak can be contained. However, in a world where no one can count and estimates seem to be useless, the catastrophe may be getting worse and not better. Experts who cannot estimate the rate of the release of the crude can hardly measure whether it is increasing.
Douglas A. McIntyre