What Might Have Been: Looking Back at the Lowball Spill Estimates


Hindsight, they tell us, is 20-20. So why are so many retrospectives on the BP spill still so foggy? Even now, it’s hard to see what actually happened. One issue deserving a hard look involves those lowball spill estimates issued by both BP and the federal government in the early days of the spill.

The New York Times is visiting the issue on the “Green” blog by Justin Gillis, who ran into Dr. Ian MacDonald of Florida State University at a spill conference. Dr. MacDonald, you may recall, was among those calling bull early and often during the early days – in a way, that became a prototype for official information.

Time and again, we’ve seen the official sources launch a trial balloon only to back off amid public outcry and outrage. Anyone thinking lessons learned from underestimating the early spill must ignore that, scant months later, the Obama Administration had to back off low-balling estimates of how much oil was left – the “vast majority” was, in fact, not gone.

Nobody knows why – being lied to so many times – people trust the government’s “all clear” declaration on seafood safety.

Mr. Gillis does a nice recap of how NOAA and BP joined hands to jump into their futures together, ignoring protocols when they liked and embracing anything that led to lower estimates.

Gillis asks us to”…remember that this claimed rate was questioned by scientists, especially Dr. MacDonald, and by advocacy groups, notably a small environmental organization called SkyTruth. Eventually their concerns were proved correct, the 5,000-barrel estimate was discredited, and a government-appointed scientific panel produced an estimate of the flow rate from the broken oil well that was more than 10 times greater. The bad estimate was a big blow to the Obama administration’s credibility, and it heightened public suspicion of virtually everything else the government said about the spill.”

He makes the jump to wondering if knowing the true flow rate early on would have changed anything – like maybe going directly to the “rescue well” instead of first trying to cap the well.

Interesting, but Mr. Gillis bypasses what many of us think may have been a bigger strategy. If you think that maybe, just maybe, the millions of gallons of dispersant pumped sub-sea into the gusher can hide a bunch of the oil, why not keep that estimate as low as possible? That’s why BP tried to hide the high-definition well video, and was successful until the U.S. Congress demanded its release.

To this day, BP disputes third-party estimates that will determine billions of dollars in fines. Those early lowball “estimates” will prove beneficial to BP when the matter is argued in court.

A hard look at those early days, especially at how BP and the agencies that were supposed to be regulating it bonded, is not just 20-20 hindsight. It offers a glimpse into the future as we, much to my dismay, rely on many of these same people to evaluate damage to human health and to our food chain.

If their first instinct was to lie, and they’ve lied every step along the way, why the hell would they change now?

Here’s the NYT blog: http://green.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/02/04/oil-spill-redux-revisiting-a-mystery/?partner=rss&emc=rss

© Smith Stag, LLC 2010 – All Rights Reserved

Add comment

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

Follow Us

© Stuart H Smith, LLC
Share This