BP says it is capturing 5,000 barrels of oil a day from gulf spill

This National Geographic Channel footage of the burning Deepwater Horizon shows the oil rig slipping into the Gulf of Mexico with eyewitness testimony from the U.S. Coast Guard.
By Juliet Eilperin and Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 20, 2010; 4:41 PM

BP said Thursday that it is now capturing 5,000 barrels a day of crude oil and 15 million cubic feet of natural gas from a leaking pipe at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, the first official admission that earlier estimates of the amount of oil spilling into sea were too small.

The amount of oil being captured is only a portion of the total because the company is catching oil from only one of two leaks. BP has also released a video that shows additional unquantified amounts of oil continuing to spurt out of the damaged pipe where the company is capturing oil through a new tube insertion. The smaller of the two leaks continues to spill unobstructed and accounts for 15 percent of the total flow, BP officials reiterated Thursday.

Separately, the Environmental Protection Agency informed BP officials late Wednesday that the company has 24 hours to choose a less toxic form of chemical dispersants to break up the oil spill and must apply the new form of dispersants within 72 hours of submitting the list of alternatives.

The move is significant, because it suggests federal officials are now concerned that the unprecedented use of chemical dispersants could pose a significant threat to the Gulf of Mexico's marine life. BP has been using two forms of dispersants, Corexit 9500A and Corexit 9527A, and so far has applied 600,000 gallons on the surface and 55,000 underwater.

On Thursday BP ordered 60,000 gallons of Dispersit -- a less-toxic dispersant preferred by many environmentalists and lawmakers -- according to Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.).

Estimates of the amount of oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico have varied widely. BP originally estimated that 1,000 barrels a day were leaking into the sea, but days later the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration upped the estimate to 5,000 barrels a day based on measurements of the surface area and thickness of the spill, which was estimated in microns or millimeters in many places. Some reputable private experts have said that the actual figure could be five times the NOAA figure.

"It was always made clear that this was a ballpark estimate," said Andrew Gowers, head of BP group media.

BP says that the actual figure wouldn't change their response, which is to do as much as they can to stop the leak, keep the spill offshore and clean up areas where oil lands. But some environmentalists say that knowing the actual amount would help determine strategies for cleanup.

Meanwhile, the EPA's order to change dispersants posed a new challenge for BP, which has been applying the chemicals both at the surface and at the sea floor near the damaged pipe.

"Dispersants have never been used in this volume before," said an administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity before the decision was formally announced. "This is a large amount of dispersants being used, larger amounts than have ever been used, on a pipe that continues to leak oil and that BP is still trying to cap."

The new policy applies to both surface and undersea applications, according to sources, and comes as the EPA has just posted BP's own results from monitoring the effect that underwater application of chemical dispersants has had in terms of toxicity, dissolved oxygen and effectiveness.

An EPA official said the agency would make an announcement on the matter later Thursday.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company