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Yes, The Size Of The Gulf Spill Matters

In the past week, there's been a long back-and-forth about how big, exactly, the Gulf oil spill is and how much crude is leaking out of BP's well. First the oil company said 5,000 barrels per day were gushing out. Then that was shown to be false. Now some experts estimate it might be closer to 95,000 barrels per day, and various members of Congress have been accusing BP of a "cover-up" and demanding a precise barrel count.

Is any of this even important, though? For awhile, both BP and the federal government argued that all this gallon-guessing was beside the point, and they had better things to do than analyze videos of the leak and conduct estimates. But, as Lisa Suatoni explains here, knowing the size of the oil flow is quite crucial for a whole bunch of different practical reasons—and not just because people have a right to know:

1. Scale. The flow rate estimates differ by a factor of ten. Differences on this scale are not quibbles; they are big, fundamental differences.
2. Response. The discrepancy is sufficiently large enough to influence response strategies. For example, to promote the efficacy of dispersants, they are applied at a specific ratio to the volume of oil. This is not possible if the volume is unknown, by this large of a degree. In addition, the ability to successfully cap the well, engineer a dome, or pump the oil to the surface depends on a good estimate of the oil flow rate (both in terms of volume of oil and the force with which it is exiting the pipe).
3. Law. Under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, a natural resource damage assessment (NRDA) must be conducted. This entails assessing the input of oil, its fate (i.e., where it goes, what it coats and contaminates), and the damage it caused. The ability to fully conduct this accounting—or ‘mass balance’—requires knowing the initial volume of oil.
4. Financial Penalty. Following discharge of oil into a water body, the federal Clean Water Act allows for a civil penalty of up to $1,000 per barrel of oil spilled. This penalty can not be calculated to its fullest extent without knowing the total volume of oil.
5. Future emergency plans. Knowing the magnitude of this spill is necessary to inform future emergency response plans. Substantial underestimates of the volume of oil leaking from Deepwater Horizon will leave us unprepared in the future.

The financial penalty part is interesting. If BP's leak estimates were correct, then it'd be facing something like a $140 million fine so far. But if the high-end estimates are right, well, the oil giant could be facing penalties in the billions. Yesterday, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said the government would make its own independent assessment of the numbers, though it's unclear why this wasn't done earlier.

(Flickr photo credit: Greenpeace)