The oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is likely to be far worse than oil rig owner BP has admitted.
Independent analysis carried out for the US National Public Radio (NPR) indicated the company has vastly underestimated the size of the spill. Experts told NPR on May 14 the spill could be 10 times bigger than the company says.
After the Deepwater Horizon oil platform sank on April 20, BP claimed oil was leaking at about 1000 barrels a day. By April 28, the US Coast Guard and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration upped to figure to 5000 barrels a day — a figure the company later accepted.
This is higher than the “worst-case blowout scenario” of about 4000 barrels a day the company cited in the original exploration plan it lodged with the US government, the Huffington Post said on April 29.
But associate professor of mechanical engineering at Purdue University, Steven Wereley, told NPR the spill was most likely to be between 56,000 barrels and 84,000 barrels a day.
Wereley analysed underwater footage of the leaking pipe released to the public on May 13. For weeks, BP had resisted calls to release the footage on the grounds the footage was private property.
Wereley’s higher oil leak estimate was supported by two other experts interviewed by NPR.
Timothy Crone, an associate research scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, reached a similar estimate to Wereley using a different technique. Eugene Chiang, professor of astrophysics at the University of California, Berkeley, told NPR he estimated the leak was between 20,000 and 100,000 barrels a day.
The findings indicate the BP oil spill dwarfs the 1989 Exxon-Valdez spill in Alaska, until now considered the worst single environmental disaster caused by the oil industry. The Exxon-Valdez spilled about 250,000 barrels of oil.
Despite this, BP CEO Tony Hayward downplayed the extent of the spill in a May 14 interview with the British Guardian. He said: “The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume.”
However, AFP said on May 18 that a research vessel had found a large underwater plume of oil off the Louisiana coast. The plume was about 16 kilometres long, 4.8 kilometres wide and 92 metres thick.
The find has sparked concerns that much of the oil spill has not risen to the surface or that the chemical dispersants used by BP are merely causing the oil to drop out of sight underwater.