Initial Spill Estimates Criticized by Oil Panel


WASHINGTON — The co-chairmen of a panel probing the BP PLC oil spill criticized the oil giant and government officials for making initial estimates that a broken Gulf of Mexico well was gushing just 1,000 to 5,000 barrels of oil a day.

“It was a very significant error,” Bob Graham, a co-chairman of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling, told reporters on Monday. “I think it set a context for public skepticism about future information.”

But Mr. Graham said nothing had emerged to suggest that BP had intentionally fudged the numbers in an effort to keep its stock price from falling. “I have no evidence that there’s a correlation,” he told reporters.

At its peak, a government-led group estimated the well gushed at a rate of up to 62,000 barrels a day.

The issue surfaced when retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who led the federal response to the now-sealed well, said Monday that BP had obligations to its shareholders.

“Ultimately, there was a fiduciary link between the responsible party and their shareholders, which would bring into question whether or not every decision could, should or would have been made based on what was best for the environment and the response itself,” Adm. Allen said.

William Reilly, the panel’s other co-chairman, asked whether that was “an implicit conclusion that BP was too slow to lay out funds.” But Adm. Allen said that “any delay in carrying out response activities” was more likely due to “the enormity of this response.”

BP declined to comment on the panel discussion.

Adm. Allen and Capt. Edwin Stanton, a U.S. Coast Guard commander, said Coast Guard responders hadn’t been influenced by the estimated size of the spill.

“We assumed at the outset this would be a catastrophic event,” Adm. Allen said.

But Messrs. Graham and Reilly, the co-chairman, said the low estimates probably did affect the handling of the spill response. “I would assume it’s common sense that the flow rate will determine how many skimmers you need; how many thousand feet of boom you bring into the area; what you’re going to do with respect to dispersants that you order,” Mr. Reilly said. “It’s not entirely clear to me how it could be that flow rate did not affect the response.”

In separate testimony, the top U.S. offshore drilling regulator said it might take weeks after the Obama administration lifts a ban on new deepwater oil exploration until the 33 rigs idled by the shutdown return to work.

“There are a significant number of additional requirements that industry is going to have to comply with,” Michael Bromwich, head of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, told the panel.

The Interior Department is planning to issue new rules this week to govern offshore oil and gas drilling. The rules are designed to prevent a repeat of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill touched off by the April 20 blowout of the BP deepwater well, and to help clear the way for the administration to end the deepwater drilling ban before its Nov. 30 expiration.

The administration has said it would lift the ban after more stringent rules on drilling safety, containment and response capacity were addressed.

The oil industry and many Gulf region political leaders have has been pushing the administration to end the ban—put in place in late May—warning it could cost additional thousands of oil industry jobs.

Until now, rig owners have been trying to hold on to many of their workers by employing them in maintenance. But Mr. Bromwich said even once the ban was lifted, the new safety rules could slow the pace of drilling.

The regulations have been widely expected by industry, which had already expressed concern that drilling would be slow resume because of the need to adapt to new rules.

“Certain equipment, certain wells, certain rigs are going to find it easier to meet those requirements,” Doug Suttles, BP’s chief operating officer, told the spill commission. He said that “the net effect” is “going to be a phased restart.”

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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