Saturday, May 29, 2010

Rep. Markey Points Out Why BP Spill Flow Rate Is Important-Update

May 27: Following the release of a report on the flow rate of the oil spill by a technical team assembled by the Obama administration [See WIMS 5/27/10], Representative Ed Markey (D-MA) continued to raise questions about BP's potential motivations to low-ball the flow rate and size of the spill, and released new documents showing BP knew the spill could have been much bigger than they claimed. The report, conducted by the National Incident Command's Flow Rate Technical Group, found that the spill was likely between 12,000 and 19,000 barrels a day, far above the 1,000-5,000 barrels a day BP estimated for most of the spill's duration. Markey has engaged with numerous independent scientists on this issue who claimed the spill was much larger than BP's estimates. Some have testified that the spill is in the range of 70,000 to 120,000 barrels per day [See WIMS 5/20/10]. 

    Representative Markey, who chairs the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming and the Energy and Environment Subcommittee in the Energy and Commerce Committee said, "Now we know what we always knew -- this spill is much larger than BP has claimed. What's clear is that BP has had an interest in low-balling the size of their accident, since every barrel spilled increases how much they could be fined by the government." Yesterday (May 26) Markey pressed this point with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, citing documents he obtained from BP that showed BP knew as early as a week after the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig that the spill could have been much higher than their initial estimate of 1,000 barrels. Markey indicated that Secretary Salazar agreed with him that BP could have a financial interest in underestimating the size of the spill.
    Markey pointed out that one document, dated April 27, shows that BP's high estimate for the daily rate of the spill was 14,266 barrels per day, well within the midrange of the new Flow Rate Technical Group report. Yet one day later, BP was asserting to the public that the spill was only 1,000 barrels a day -- their low estimate for the size of the spill. The implications for BP's financial liability are directly tied to the size of the spill. Under current law -- the Clean Water Act as amended by the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, following the Exxon Valdez disaster -- a company that spills oil is subject to fines up to $1,000 per barrel, or up to $3,000 per barrel in the case of gross negligence.

    For BP, the difference between an estimate of 1,000 barrels per day and one of 14,000 barrels a day could really be the difference between $5 to $15 million per day in fines versus $14 to $42 million per day. That means, at the end of yesterday (May 26), the 37th day of the spill, the difference could potentially be between $37 million in fines or $1.5 billion in fines, according to BP's own estimates from the documents. According to the range reached by the technical group, BP could be subject to between $444 million and $2.1 billion in potential fines for the oil spilled thus far. Markey said, "BP has to stop protecting their liability and start dealing with the reality of the size of this spill. Knowing the size of the spill is vital to all facets of this spill, from response to recovery to accountability."
    The team of scientists and engineers -- the Flow Rate Technical Group (FRTG) -- included Purdue University mechanical engineering professor Steven Wereley, the researcher that testified before Representative Markey's hearing on May 19, that the BP leak was much larger than previously estimated (i.e. at least "an order of magnitude higher"). In a separate May 28, release from Purdue, Wereley an expert in micro- and nanofluidics said, "We feel these numbers are very reliable because this was a highly qualified panel of scientists and engineers from academics, government agencies and national labs."
    In the release, Wereley clarifies the differences in his previous estimates and said "the consensus of his Plume Modeling Team is that the leakage at the time of the viewed video clips averaged at least 12,000-25,000 barrels of oil per day, plus considerable natural gas." That figure, he said, "could possibly be significantly larger if the conservative assumptions used to make the estimate were relaxed." On May 19, Wereley testified, based on the limited, preliminary video feed available at the time, that the baseline flow was 95,000 barrels/day with a plus or minus 20% degree of accuracy.
    When an initial 30-second video clip of the oil gushing from the 21.5-inch pipe was released by BP on May 12, Wereley deployed a technique called particle image velocimetry (PIV) to create freeze-frame shots of the video. From there, he ran a computer analysis to estimate the number of pixels based on the pipe's size. Wereley, who has co-written a textbook on particle image velocimetry, created a conversion from pixels to inches to compute how fast oil was flowing from the pipe. Using the area of the pipe and the speed of the oil, he concluded that two feet of oil was leaking per second.
    From that calculation, Wereley determined that 56,000-84,000 barrels of oil, plus gas, had been leaking daily into the Gulf - a flow that was nearly 10 times higher than other estimates at that time. Wereley said that accounting for decrease in oil volume due to the gas coming out of solution, the flow rates released by the panel of experts Thursday (May 27) align with those he calculated two weeks ago using the first BP video.
    Using a longer and clearer video clip of the oil leak for the USGS analysis, Wereley said the figure from his team was reduced to the 12,000-25,000 per-barrel range because of the amount of methane gas and other natural gases consistently gushing out of the pipe. Wereley said, "The initial video that was released by BP was compressed, brief and not of the highest quality," said Wereley, who testified on his initial findings before Congress on May 19. "However, additional video and other important facts were released to the federal interagency Flow Rate Technical Group that allowed a more accurate determination of the oil flow."
    Access a May 27 release from Rep. Markey and link to the referenced BP documents (click here). Access the May 28 release from Purdue University (click here). Access the webcast of the May 19 Wereley testimony and other researchers regarding the magnitude of the spill (click here, See Wereley testimony @ 1hour 23 minutes).

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