Top BP Officials Demanded That Expert’s Alarming Oil Spill Estimate Be Kept Secret


On April 22, 2010, top BP officials knew that the crippled Macondo Well would release roughly 82,000 barrels of oil a day into the Gulf of Mexico if the leak was unobstructed. An oil spill expert with impeccable credentials had told them so. Yet, two days later, as the federal government was scrambling to mobilize an effective response to the unfolding disaster, BP announced publicly that the well was leaking a relatively modest 1,000 barrels a day. To make BP’s actions even more suspect (if that’s possible), according to multiple investigations, the oil giant had absolutely no scientific support for the 1,000-barrel “estimate.” Not a shred of scientific evidence existed to back it up.

It appears high-level BP officials made a concerted effort to keep secret a completely legitimate spill estimate – based on a tested scientific model – and disclosed a completely unfounded, grossly inaccurate flow rate. Go figure.

The series of decisions surrounding the “false estimate” episode are all neatly packaged in a damning email exchange between BP employees released in federal court in New Orleans on Friday (Jan. 27). The startling new evidence provides a glimpse inside what is shaping up to rank among the biggest, most flagrant corporate coverups in recent history. From a Jan. 27 Times-Picayune report:

The April 22 email from Rob Marshall, BP’s subsea manager for the Gulf of Mexico, to deepwater project manager Gary Imm and corporate vice president Jonathan Sprague is an exhibit in the massive oil spill litigation slated for trial Feb. 27.

Marshall advised Imm and Sprague that an expert named Alistair Johnston had a new model for how much oil might be spewing from the wellhead a mile below the surface and 50 miles from the Mississippi River delta. Johnston’s new estimate, Marshall wrote, was 82,000 barrels a day if the well has an open hole.

The response from Imm suggests that BP and the Coast Guard were already butting heads over how much oil was coming out of the busted well – and that 82,000 barrels a day wasn’t a number BP wanted anyone to hear.

“A number of people have been looking at this and we already have had difficult discussions with the USCG (Coast Guard) on the numbers,” Imm wrote back to Marshall and Sprague. “Please tell Alistair not to communicate to anyone on this.”

So much for the “complete transparency” and cooperation BP pledged to embrace.

On April 27, a government scientist upped the 1,000-barrel estimate to an only slightly more realistic 5,000 barrels a day, which held for an entire month despite the insistence by many independent experts that the well could be spewing as much as 100,000 barrels a day. So it would seem that Mr. Johnston’s initial model showing a leak rate of 82,000 barrels a day provided to BP officials on April 22, 2010, was in fact right on the mark. Yet BP chose not to disclose it at a moment when an accurate assessment of the magnitude of the spill was critical to mustering an effective response. More from the Times-Picayune:

As it turned out, the hole was not unobstructed. A massive stack of valves and pistons blocked some of the flow and response teams later found the crude coming out of three leaks in the pipes that emanated from the wellhead.

Months later, after much wrangling and analysis, government scientists determined the oil actually was shooting out at a rate 62,000 barrels a day on April 22.

But the idea that BP and the Coast Guard weren’t being fully honest about the spill rate came to dominate the conversation for months.

My guess is criminal charges will be brought against individuals who intentionally withheld information that impacted the scope, speed and effectiveness of the response. My hope is those individuals will do jail time – and I’m certainly not alone in that sentiment. There are tens of thousands of Gulf Coast residents who would like to tar and feather these folks, and then throw them in jail.

In addition to criminal charges against individuals, the possibility of sizable punitive damages against the company is becoming more likely as incriminating evidence continues to emerge. The legal exposure for BP and a growing number of its employees is enormous, which includes possible “insider trading” charges. More from the Times-Picayune report:

The flow rate is a critical issue. At first, it was important as the oil industry and the government tried to figure out a safe way to close in the well. It also played a role in establishing how damaging the spill would be for BP, and several large investors have sued BP in federal court in Houston alleging that the company used low-ball estimates to artificially prop up the company’s stock price.

Federal investigators looked into the possibility that BP officials might have engaged in insider trading based on their knowledge of larger flow rates before they were disclosed to the public. No charges have been filed.

Not yet, at least. Can you think of anything more despicable than seeking to profit from a disaster that has destroyed so many lives and irreparably damaged the environment? I certainly can’t.

As we near the Feb. 27 trial date in New Orleans, I anticipate that we will all grow increasingly disgusted by the evidence that surfaces as to how one of the wealthiest, most powerful corporations in the world caused the worst oil spill in U.S. history and then perpetrated one of the biggest coverups in recent times.

Stay tuned.

Read David Hammer’s Times-Picayune report here:

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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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