Officials cite progress in siphoning oil, but remain unclear on size of spill

By David A. Fahrenthold and Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 9, 2010; A04

In the Gulf of Mexico, victories remain small and sour. On Tuesday, the U.S. government announced two steps forward in the battle against the massive oil spill -- including an increase in the oil being siphoned to the surface -- and, in the process, revealed how little it still knows about the problem.

Officials said that a "cap" placed over the leak on the gulf floor collected about 14,800 barrels (or 620,000 gallons) in the 24-hour period ending midnight Monday. But that good news was also bad news.

Since oil was still flowing out around the cap, it showed that the government's latest estimate of the leak's total size, 12,000 to 19,000 barrels a day, was probably too low. Scientists were told to try again.

Also, federal scientists said they had confirmed that there was oil beneath the ocean's surface, 48 miles from the site of the leak. But they still could not

say much about the reported "plumes" underwater: where they are, how they move and what they will mean for underwater life.

So -- even on one of the federal government's better days since the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded April 20 -- the most memorable quote was about anger and uncertainty. President Obama told Matt Lauer of NBC's "Today" show that he was talking to fishermen and oil-spill experts "so I know whose ass to kick." Obama will return to the gulf early next week, inspecting damage in Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, the White House said. He promised to make sure that the spill was cleaned up and that residents of the Gulf Coast were "made whole" by BP, "if it's the last thing I do in this administration." On Tuesday, the Interior Department took a step designed to allow oil companies to resume drilling offshore, at least in waters shallower than 500 feet. It issued what it called "stronger safety requirements" for those wells, ending a de facto ban on all new drilling.

The new rules for these wells would require independent third-party verification that "blowout preventers" -- the fail-safe machinery that failed in this case -- work before they are installed. They would also require top executives of companies to state that any false material in the documents could leave them subject to criminal prosecution. The rules would not affect wells drilled in deeper water: Those are still under a six-month moratorium.

At Seahawk Drilling, a major owner of rigs in the gulf, chief executive Randall D. Stilley said it would not be hard for his company to comply: It already requires rigs to meet many of the new rules. But he said he worried about back-ups caused by new paperwork.

"We can comply with the new regulations," Stilley said. But, he said, "this could create delays in issuing new permits that would effectively prolong [a shutdown] on shallow-water drilling for months."

Around the gulf, Tuesday was a day of deepening uncertainty about the crisis's most basic questions: How fast is the oil coming out? And where does it go when it disappears from the famous spill-cam video feeds?

Jane Lubchenco, who leads the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said that her researchers had confirmed the presence of small amounts of oil under the water in a spot 48 miles from the leak. It seemed to be confirmation of what university researchers had been saying for weeks: That this is not a typical oil spill, where crude floats on water.

"The bottom line is, yes, there is oil in the water column," Lubchenco said. But she was extremely cautious. The oil could not be definitively traced back to the BP spill, she said, and its concentrations were less than 0.5 parts per million.

But other researchers were more troubled.

David Hollander, at the University of South Florida, said he thought there was evidence for a plume oil -- often, broken into droplets too small to see -- 25 miles by almost seven miles, and descended about 100 feet below the surface. In some parts of the gulf, he said, there was also evidence indicating a cloud of oil that began around 3,200 feet below the surface.

He said that researchers were not yet certain that this oil came from the BP leak. Because of the limitations of technology, it is nearly impossible to know what is going on below the surface.

"Are they puffs of clouds separated from each other? Are they stacked on top of one another, sort of cascading like an escalator?" Hollander said. "These are things that are just absolutely in the dark. No idea."

Out in the gulf Tuesday, the NOAA research ship Thomas Jefferson was on the hunt for this hidden oil.

Officials onboard said they had found evidence for moving clouds of hydrocarbons -- oil and natural gas -- more than 3,600 feet below the surface in some spots. Scientists on board said their work was made harder by the shifting of these pockets, and by a lack of equipment designed for the task.

"It's a cat-and-mouse game," said Larry A. Mayer, a crew member on the boat and a scientist at the University of New Hampshire. "The surface presence [of oil] is measurable. The real unknown is what is happening in the deep sea, and I think that will be unknown for a long time."

At the source of the leak, more than 40 miles off the Louisiana coast, the containment cap, a five-foot steel funnel, was bringing about 33 percent more oil to the surface than it had Sunday. The pipe was also bringing up natural gas and seawater.

Even so, and here is the phrase that has defined this crisis: Despite that success, more oil was still coming out.

Since the leak now appeared bigger than the government's most recent estimate, Coast Guard Adm. Thad W. Allen said he had asked the same panel of scientists to come up with a new estimate.

In interviews Tuesday, several members of that panel said they might still have trouble fixing a number to it. Their task involves studying satellite images and tracking the movements of billows in the underwater flow.

It may be helped, they said, by new high-definition video feeds from remote vehicles positioned near the leak. Or not.

"I don't think that anybody can give you a proper scientific answer to that question. Pick a number, any number," said Juan Lasheras, a professor of engineering and applied sciences at the University of California at San Diego. Some have suggested that flow actually grew when BP sawed off a kinked stretch of pipe.

"I think they're just guessing," Lasheras said.

Zak reported from the NOAA survey vessel Thomas Jefferson, off the coast of Grand Isle, La. Staff writers Joel Achenbach, Juliet Eilperin and Steven Mufson contributed to this report.

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