The Flow Debate


One day not long from now, first from some hastily recruited “citizen group” and maybe in some obscure court filings, the debate over exactly how much oil BP’s runaway well has spewed into the Gulf of Mexico will become even more frighteningly important than it is now. It is quite likely that BP’s well-heeled legal teams, along with those of the other companies and their allies, will begin to attack the opinions of experts not on their payrolls.

The importance of the the several dueling spill estimates was one of many reasons BP refuses demands that all its underwater video become public, and then gave only a few minutes that it carefully selected on its own. Many people correctly attributed that lack of transparency to the fear of the resulting public relations debacle, but that was just a short-term reason relative to the hardball aspects of oil spill estimates.

The hardball: Eventual legal arguments and fines.

Dan Froomkin, the senior Washington correspondent for the Huffington Post, has been excellent on how the government is siding with oil companies on the spill volume issue, including this recent post: “There’s a very good reason one party to all this would want to low-ball flow estimates. As Mother Jones environmental reporter Kate Sheppard recently noted: ‘The base fine for a spill is $1,100 a barrel, but it can go as high as $4,300 a barrel if a federal court determines that the spill was the result of gross negligence by the responsible party.'”

Froomkin even does the math: “Should it come to that, at 12,000 barrels a day for 45 days – at the base fine amount – that would amount to $594 million; at 19,000 barrels, that would amount to about $940 million; at, say, 50,000 barrels, that would amount to about $2.5 billion. (And all those numbers would quadruple in case of gross negligence.)”

Find that here:

Here’s a prediction: BP and/or its agents will soon, maybe by the end of this year or early next or even sooner, begin to seriously and actively downplay the actual amount of oil going into the Gulf. And the problem is, as it has been since the beginning, that the United States government is in virtual lock-step with the oil companies.

Just yesterday, an otherwise excellent story in The Washington Post defaulted to government estimates of the spill: “That means roughly a quarter to half of the flow is being piped to a surface ship,” the national incident commander, Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, said Saturday. BP hopes to improve the rate captured in coming days. If official government estimates are correct, 23 million to 47 million gallons of oil have spewed so far.”

Understand that nobody really knows how much of the flow is being diverted – there’s no gauge down there. But the “government” estimate seems very much like a pro-company number. And the “government estimates” track only with the BP estimates, falling well short of what other, equally qualified but not-on-payroll experts believe. What you’re seeing is a very disciplined, cynical and admittedly clever attempt to dilute eventual responsibility.

What becomes clear is that, if the government really wants us to think it sides with us and not the oil companies, then a good place to start is getting the “official” estimates off the corporate numbers and into line with credible third-party estimates.

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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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