BP on Wednesday began collecting crude oil from a second containment system that the company hopes will help stem the thousands of barrels escaping from their damaged well in the Gulf of Mexico, an amount that scientists said could be as high as 60,000 barrels a day.
The company is siphoning the oil through a series of pipes and hoses to a ship, the Q4000, which will then clean and burn the oil and gas mixture in a processing device called an EverGreen burner.
The method BP has been using since June 3 — a containment cap — has been able to collect about 15,000 barrels of crude oil a day. But based on new estimates of the flow rate released on Tuesday, that may be only about one quarter of the amount leaking daily.
BP said it would release information on its Web siteabout how much oil this second containment system was able to capture, once the measurements became available.
While the first containment cap was installed after BP cut an underwater pipe called a riser on June 3, the second containment system is attached directly with pipes and other equipment to the failed blowout preventer, the device that was supposed to shut off the flow of oil after an explosion rocked the Deepwater Horizon rig on April 20. That equipment had already been installed for the failed “top kill” effort weeks ago.
The flow was already categorized as the largest offshore oil spill in the nation’s history, but the new figures that the government released on Tuesday sharply increased previous estimates. Scientists estimated that the flow rate ranged from 35,000 barrels to 60,000 barrels a day — up from the rate they issued only last week, of 25,000 to 30,000 barrels a day. It continues a pattern in which every new estimate of the flow rate has been dramatically higher than the one before.
The new estimate is far above the figure of 5,000 barrels a day that the government and BP clung to for weeks after the spill started, following the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig. That estimate was made by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration using methods not recommended for large oil spills, and it came under attack from professors and advocacy groups who said the spill had to be larger. Time has proven those critics right.
The latest number is based on new information, including high-resolution video made after the riser cut, and on pressure readings taken by a device that was inserted this week into the equipment at the sea floor. Energy Secretary Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist, was personally involved in using those pressure readings to help make the latest calculation.
“This estimate brings together several scientific methodologies and the latest information from the sea floor, and represents a significant step forward in our effort to put a number on the oil that is escaping from BP’s well,” Mr. Chu said in a statement. “As we continue to collect additional data and refine these estimates, it is important to realize that the numbers can change.”
BP installed its second containment system a day after efforts to stop the damaged well hit yet another snag, underscoring once again the fragility of the work: lightning struck the vessel that had been collecting the oil from the well, starting a fire and forcing operations to be suspended for nearly five hours.
BP said in a statement that the fire, which broke out on the derrick — the familiar-looking tower used to lift the piping — was quickly extinguished, and there were no injuries. But as a precaution, the containment operation was shut down.
The containment cap has still been BP’s most successful method for collecting some of the oil that has been leaking from the undersea well, and it has only been partly effective.
If the new range of flow estimates proves correct, and if BP is ultimately found guilty of gross negligence in its actions leading to the disaster, the company could be assessed fines of up to $258 million a day. Those fines could come on top of payments for cleanup costs and to cover economic damage to Gulf Coast businesses.