In the 77 days since oil from the ruptured Deepwater Horizon began to gush into the Gulf of Mexico, BP has skimmed or burned about 60 percent of the amount it promised regulators it could remove in a single day.
The disparity between what BP promised in its March 24 filing with federal regulators and the amount of oil recovered since the April 20 explosion underscores what some officials and environmental groups call a misleading numbers game that has led to widespread confusion about the extent of the spill and the progress of the recovery.
“It’s clear they overreached,” said John F. Young Jr., council chairman in Louisiana’s Jefferson Parish. “I think the federal government should have at the very least picked up a phone and started asking some questions and challenged them about the accuracy of that number and tested the veracity of that claim.”
In a March report that was not questioned by federal officials, BP said it had the capacity to skim and remove 491,721 barrels of oil each day in the event of a major spill.
As of Monday, with about 2 million barrels released into the gulf, the skimming operations that were touted as key to preventing environmental disaster have averaged less than 900 barrels a day.
Skimming has captured only 67,143 barrels, and BP has relied on burning to remove 238,095 barrels. Most of the oil recovered — about 632,410 barrels — was captured directly at the site of the leaking well.
BP officials declined to comment on the validity of early skimming projections, stressing instead the company’s commitment to building relief wells intended to shut down the still-gushing well.
“The numbers are what they are,” said BP spokesman Toby Odone. “At some point, we will look back and say why the numbers ended up this way. That’s for the future. Right now, we are doing all we can to capture and collect the oil through various methods. We will make sure all the oil is ultimately dealt with.”
BP began downgrading expectations only two days after the rig explosion. Although its projections reported to the federal government were only weeks old, the company cited a greatly reduced number in a news release filed with the federal Securities and Exchange Commission. It projected that it had “skimming capacity of more than 171,000 barrels per day, with more available if needed.”
The release presented an optimistic picture of a company scrambling to clean up the mess, mobilizing a “flotilla of vessels and resources that includes: significant mechanical recovery capacity.”
In truth, the skimming effort was hampered from the start by numerous factors, including the slow response of emergency workers, inadequate supplies and equipment, untrained cleanup crews and inclement weather. Greatly compounding the problem was the nature of the spill, with much of the oil never surfacing.
The poor results of the skimming operations have led to a desperate search for solutions. The world’s largest skimmer, owned by the Taiwanese, is on site and undergoing Coast Guard safety tests. The 10-story-high ship, which is the length of three football fields, was touted as having the ability to remove oil at the rate of tens of thousands of barrels every day. Thus far, it has been unable to produce those results in the gulf.
BP’s March response plan was filed with the federal Minerals Management Service, which has oversight over oil drilling. BP said it would reach the stated goal largely by deploying two companies that have the necessary expertise, trained staff and equipment: the nonprofit Marine Spill Response Corp. and the for-profit National Response Corp.
But Marine Spill Response said it was never asked whether it could hit the optimistic marks set by BP. National Response declined to comment.
“Not at any time were we consulted with what was in the plan either by MMS or by our customer,” said Marine Spill Response spokeswoman Judith Roos.
Daily reports from the federal government and BP’s Joint Operations Center in Louisiana quickly showed that retrieval efforts were falling far short of promises. After the first week, just 100 barrels of oil had been skimmed from the gulf, while the broken well continued to pour as much as 200,000 barrels of oil into the water.
It wasn’t until mid-June that BP’s daily report noted the collection of 485,714 barrels — roughly the amount it said it could retrieve in a day. But the June figure was for an oil-water mixture, which is about 90 percent ocean water.
Meanwhile, BP also kept revising its estimate of the amount of oil leaking into the gulf. In the early days after the spill, BP and federal officials placed the daily flow rate from the ruptured rig at 1,000 barrels a day, and then raised it to 5,000 barrels a day. In late May, a group of scientists charged by the government with estimating the flow said the rate was 12,000 to 25,000 barrels a day. And in June, the official estimated rate jumped to 35,000 to 60,000 barrels a day.
Because of these changing numbers and wide ranges, the amount of uncollected oil might be as low as 1.1 million barrels or as high as 4 million barrels.
Earthjustice, which has joined with the Sierra Club and other environmental groups to sue the federal government over BP’s response plan, warns that because these estimates continue to climb, the spillage numbers could go higher.
Earthjustice also says spill damage is being obscured by misleading numbers.
On Monday, the joint operations center for the federal government and BP reported that more than 671,428 barrels of an oil-water mixture have been captured and stored.
The figures clearly have confused journalists, with many media outlets reporting the figures as solid oil recovery numbers.
About 90 percent of the mixture is water, so the true amount of oil skimmed is relatively small — roughly 67,143 barrels of oil. Had the estimated amounts in the March response plan been accurate, 38 million barrels of oil could have been removed by now.
“This has been a cat-and-mouse game since March when they put out these estimates,” said Earthjustice attorney Colin H. Adams. “We want real figures instead of inflated estimates on what they are cleaning up and deflated estimates on how much is gushing out.”
In response to criticism that the government did not challenge crucial aspects of BP’s recovery plans, the Coast Guard this week is scheduled to announce creation of an expert panel to conduct a “preparedness review” for Deepwater Horizon.
“I think this will fundamentally change the lay of the land when it comes to oil spill preparations,” said Greg Pollock, deputy commissioner of the Oil Spill Prevention and Response Program at the Texas General Land Office. “Unfortunately, it’s taken a catastrophic spill to get us to look at it.”
In a statement, the U.S. Coast Guard and the Minerals Management Service (recently renamed the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement) said they are reviewing how cleanup estimates are crafted and the government’s role in reviewing them.
“Without question, we must raise the bar for offshore oil and gas operations, hold them to the highest safety standards,” the statement said.