Estimates of oil leak gush past twice the previous levels; drill permits yanked

By Joel Achenbach and David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 28, 2010; A01

With mud continuing to battle oil in an attempted "top kill" of the leaking well at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, the historic scale of the disaster became clearer Thursday when scientists said the mile-deep well has been spewing 12,000 to 19,000 barrels of oil a day, far more than previously estimated.

The new figure supports what many observers have assumed from the images of oil slicking the gulf surface, slathering beaches and spurting from a pipe on the sea floor: This is the worst oil spill in U.S. history.

President Obama, feeling pressure to act in a crisis now in its sixth week, yanked the exploratory drilling permits for 33 deepwater rigs in the gulf and suspended planned exploration in two areas off the coast of Alaska. He announced the moves at a news conference carried on cable TV channels that simultaneously showed the live video feed of effluent billowing from the cracked riser pipe at the bottom of the gulf.

Obama pushed back on suggestions that, as he put it, "BP is off running around doing whatever it wants and nobody is minding the store." He said that his administration is doing all it can, but that, when it comes to plugging the leak, "the federal government does not possess superior technology to BP."

The eventful day included the first prominent administrative casualty of the crisis. Elizabeth Birnbaum, head of Minerals Management Service, which issues permits for offshore drilling, resigned.

The political developments continue to be overshadowed by a technological struggle that has no precedent. Whether the top kill is going to work remains highly uncertain.

The maneuver is a brute-force, yet delicately calibrated, injection of heavy drilling mud into the blowout preventer atop the wellhead. As the mud is pumped from ships at the surface, the hydrocarbons should be forced back down the well toward their source in a porous reservoir called the Macondo field, about 2 1/2 miles below the floor of the gulf.

It has not been smooth sailing. After pumping mud for about nine hours on Wednesday, BP put the pumping on hold throughout the day Thursday while it pondered the initial results. The company resumed Thursday evening.

"Nothing has gone wrong or unanticipated," Doug Suttles, BP's chief operating officer, told reporters. He said engineers hope to improve on their initial performance by preceding a mud injection with a blast of rubber balls and other rough-textured materials -- a "junk shot" -- to clog the blowout preventer and force more mud down into the hole, rather than shooting it out of the leaks in the riser.

"We did believe we did pump some mud down the well bore. We obviously pumped a lot of mud out the riser," Suttles said.

BP Managing Director Bob Dudley likened the top kill to an "arm-wrestling match with two fairly equal-rated forces. Or taking two fire hoses and driving them together, trying to overcome the other."

The well won't be considered killed until the mud injection has been followed by cement to permanently plug it -- at which point the news would be carried by "the roar coming out of this building," the deadpan Suttles said.

Even if the well is plugged this weekend, the spill already is of epic proportions. The Flow Rate Technical Group, a task force made up of scientists from government and academia, has produced preliminary estimates that 12,000 to 19,000 barrels a day have leaked into the gulf, U.S. Geological Survey Director Marcia McNutt said Thursday.

The scale of the spill has been a matter of furious debate and speculation. The Coast Guard initially pegged the spill at 1,000 barrels a day. Then the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration used satellite images to make an estimate of 5,000 barrels a day.

Government officials and BP executives repeated that figure for weeks, even as independent scientists came up with figures as high as 95,000 barrels a day.

There are 42 gallons in a barrel. Assuming that the leak began when the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig sank to the gulf bottom on April 22, and subtracting the amount of oil that BP said it has siphoned from the leaking pipe and pumped onto a barge, the new estimate would suggest that 17 million to 27 million gallons of oil have polluted the gulf.

The 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, by comparison, put 11 million gallons of oil along more than 1,000 miles of Alaska's coastline.

Interior Department spokesman Frank Quimby said scientists used multiple techniques. One took video of the plume of oil escaping from the pipe and fed it through computer models. The result was 12,000 to 25,000 barrels a day.

Another technique relied on a NASA plane that could differentiate oil from water on the gulf surface. That produced an estimate of 12,000 to 19,000 barrels a day. A third method relied on measurements from the insertion tube that siphoned oil from the end of the riser. That produced an estimate of 12,000 barrels a day.

Also Thursday, scientists from the University of South Florida reported the discovery in the gulf of a "plume" of dissolved oil that was six miles wide and up to 20 miles long. The plume extended from the surface down to a depth of 3,200 feet.

The oil is entirely dissolved in the water, which appears clear, USF professor David Hollander said. That seemed to confirm the fears of some scientists that, because of the depth of the leak and the heavy use of chemical dispersants, this spill was behaving differently than others. Instead of floating on top of the water, it may be moving beneath it.

That could hamper containment efforts and would also be a problem for ecosystems deep under the gulf. There, scientists say, the oil could be absorbed by tiny animals and enter a food chain that builds to sportfish such as red snapper. It might also glom on to deep coral formations.

Oil has now hit 101 miles of Louisiana coastline, state officials said, mainly lapping up on state's outer ring of uninhabited barrier islands: Whiskey Island, Raccoon Island, Isle Grand Terre. The beaches and marinas of Grand Isle -- a rare beach in a region of marshy coast, and a weekend destination for Cajuns and deepwater fishermen -- are deserted, except for those working on the spill.

"We should have about 4,500, 5,000 people on the beach," said Mayor Dave Camardelle at a news conference with Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) Thursday. "And it's a ghost town."

Five of seven workers helping clean up oil in the Gulf of Mexico were released from the hospital Thursday after complaining of nausea, dizziness, and headaches the day before, prompting the Coast Guard to order all 125 boats working in the Breton Sound area to return to port. The incident has highlighted concerns about possible health risks. So far, air monitoring has not found alarmingly high levels of toxic chemicals, officials said.

On Thursday, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers gave approval to a plan that sounded far-fetched in the spill's early days: build more Louisiana.

The corps approved part of a state plan to build a line of six-foot-high barrier islands off the Louisiana coast, designed to block oil on the surface and under the water.

In all, Jindal said, the Corps approved building 40 miles of the 100-mile barrier that Louisiana had proposed. The first move, he said, would be to build one smaller section as a prototype. He said BP should be made to pay for the plan, which has been estimated to cost tens of millions of dollars.

The oil industry did not welcome Obama's new moves on offshore drilling. Bill Tanner, a spokesman for Shell Oil, said, "We respect and understand today's decision in the context of the tragic spill in the Gulf of Mexico, but we remain confident in our drilling expertise, which is built upon a foundation of redundant safety systems and company global standards."

In Lafourche ("la-FOOSH") Parish, a mosaic of bayous, lakes and marshland, oil has already penetrated some marshes. Charlotte Randolph, the parish president, said she fears for the future of fishing in the area.

"If this destroys our water, then we can't be who we were before," Randolph said. "The other industry here is oil and gas. We had a happy marriage before. And now the husband has really done something awful."

Staff writers Rob Stein, Juliet Eilperin and Steven Mufson contributed to this report.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company