Oil spill commission questions BP's response plan

A Coast Guard official says the 300-ton device that failed to stop the massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill after a rig exploded has arrived at a NASA facility in Louisiana for analysis. (Sept. 13)
By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 27, 2010; 7:13 PM

The two chairmen of the president's Oil Spill Commission, which is conducting an inquiry into the April 20 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, expressed skepticism Monday about claims from BP and government officials that initial underestimation of the flow rate of the Macondo well had no impact on the response to the spill.

"It's a little bit like Custer. He underestimated the number of Indians that were on the other side of the hill and he paid the ultimate price for that," said former senator Bob Graham, speaking at a news conference with his co-chairman, William Reilly.

The flow rate of the blown-out well sparked great controversy at the height of the crisis. The Coast Guard initially pegged the leak at 1,000 barrels a day, then upped that to 5,000 barrels, using both government and BP estimates. But the actual rate initially was 62,000 barrels a day, according to scientists in the government-backed Flow Rate Technical Group.

A persistent question is whether BP and the Coast Guard calibrated their initial response plans, at the surface and at the sea floor, to handle the smaller amount of gushing oil. Representatives of both, appearing Monday at a commission hearing at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel, denied that they made such a mistake, saying they went all-out with every available resource.

"We literally threw everything at it," said Doug Suttles, BP chief operating officer for exploration and production. Coast Guard Capt. Edwin Stanton echoed those remarks.

But Graham said at the news conference that the commission has information suggesting that some of the deep-sea technology used to fight the leak, such as the "top hat" containment cap, was premised on a smaller flow.

There was also new information on how the erroneous flow estimate came to be early in the crisis. Ian MacDonald, a Florida State University physical oceanographer, testified Monday that BP's Regional Oil Spill Response Plan, a 567-page document dated 2008 that covers the Gulf of Mexico and is famous for its provision for saving walruses that do not live in the gulf, contains an incorrect statistical formula for estimating the size of a spill.

The formula in the BP plan underestimates the thickness of black oil on the surface of the sea by a hundredfold, MacDonald said. As a result, BP's "best guess" for the leak as of April 27 was 5,768 barrels, close to the 5,000-barrel estimate initially produced by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

MacDonald made headlines early in the crisis when he said that his own scrutiny of satellite images of the slick produced a leak estimate of 26,000 barrels a day minimum. He told reporters Monday that he did not take evaporation into account, and thus the real flow had to be higher yet.

MacDonald said that most of the oil remains in the gulf. This oil "is a highly durable material that resists further dissipation," MacDonald concluded. Referring to the spill as a kind of uncontrolled experiment, he wrote in his prepared testimony that there could be long-term damage to productivity and biodiversity in the gulf: "[W]e must remember that this experiment was performed on an ecosystem that was already badly damaged" by overfishing, coastal runoff and low oxygen levels.

Doug Inkley, senior scientist with the National Wildlife Federation, said in a written statement citing MacDonald's findings, "From Day One, BP and the government have lowballed the volume of the oil in the water and minimized the current and future impacts of this disaster."

Earlier, Graham pressed Suttles about why the company overestimated its ability to handle a massive spill when it applied for a permit in 2009 to drill the ill-fated Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico. Suttles said he was not involved in the creation of the company's Oil Spill Response Plan.

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