Thad Allen's press briefing at the White House Monday makes one thing clear -- we can forget about that 12,000 to 19,000 barrels per day range that Obama administration officials have consistently cited, inaccurately, as the amount of oil likely to be gushing from BP's blown-out Deepwater Horizon Gulf of Mexico well.
The "top hat" containment dome is already capturing nearly 11,000 barrels of oil a day and is likely soon to surpass the 15,000 barrel per day capacity of the ship BP's got sitting on the surface to process the oil. Yet oil is still billowing from the leak, as anyone can see from the live video feed. A second ship is being brought in to raise the capacity to 20,000 barrels per day, and a production platform is on the way that will add still more capacity.
In the face of that, Allen finally mentioned that scientists working to determine the flow rate had made a second estimate, 12,000 to 25,000 barrels per day, that Obama officials, notably Carol Browner, the president's adviser on energy and climate change, previously had ignored.
Yet it's likely even 25,000 barrels per day is way low. The government's Flow Rate Technical Group never saw the 12,000 to 19,000 or the 12,000 to 25,000 as the full range of the leak's size. Rather those were the low-end estimates, as Dan Froomkin pointed out at Huffington Post. The team didn't feel comfortable giving high end estimates, as Renee Schoof reported in this story last week (start at Paragraph 18 for the relevant portions). Why not? They didn't have confidence in the information they'd been given. If you want to see just how disingenuous, or, if you're kinder, ignorant, the administration's use of this group's work has been, read the report itself. Here's a quote: "Based upon the incomplete and often poor quality data available to the experts, only a range of values that represent an estimated minimum can be given [emphasis added]." And that's just 10 sentences into the 43-page report.
BP's apparently known for some time, however, that the flow rate would well exceed the production capacity of its ships. On Monday, Allen revealed that the plans to move in a large production facility have been in the works for "several weeks."
"I would tell you," he said, "several weeks ago they started converting to a much larger production platform in anticipation that they would replace this one with a higher capacity platform. That’s being done right now. But it’s a very large barge ship and some of these are coming [from] as far away as the North Sea . . ."
We don't know yet what Allen meant by "several weeks" but one does have to wonder when BP shared that plan with the Coast Guard or the Obama administration, which seemed strangely incurious about the size of the leak until a month in, when the Flow Rate Techincal Group was formed May 19, the same day testimony before Congress suggested the rate could be 95,000 barrels per day.
Still, both Allen and White House press secretary Robert Gibbs were very careful Monday to remain conservative about the size of the spill (read the transcript here). And they both insist that knowing the size of the spill earlier on wouldn't have made any difference in the Coast Guard's response.
But Allen also said that the Coast Guard only now is taking an inventory to know how many skimmers might be available to tackle the spill, and it seems unbelievable that they wouldn't have done that sooner if they'd really been looking at a "worst case" scenario. Perhaps waiting a month to begin figuring out how much oil was gushing out of the Gulf's floor was a major misstep. But whose?