On Thursday, "a senior administration official" met with a couple of editors and reporters at McClatchy's Miami Herald to talk about the oil spill. At one point, one of the journalists asked the official just how much oil was gushing out of the leak at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. The estimate, the official said, was 12,000 to 19,000 barrels per day.
While that's closer to the mark than the 5,000 bbd the administration repeated for weeks, it's still wrong, by a substantial factor. In fact, the administration's own Flow Rate Technical Team last week announced that it had arrived at two different ranges: the 12,000 to 19,000 figure that the "senior official" repeated at the Herald and a 12,000 to 25,000 bbd estimate, which for some reason Obama officials seem to forget when they are talking about the size of the leak. Read McClatchy's Lesley Clark on the subject here.
Carol Browner, Obama's adviser on energy and climate change who, by the way, was born in Miami, made the same omission on Sunday in her appearance on Meet the Press, where she said the administration is "prepared for the worst." So what is the worst? David Gregory asked her the size of the leak. After 10 sentences of throat-clearing about how hard it is to get to the estimate (see the transcript here), Browner finally gave the 12,000 to 19,000 figure. No mention of the 12,000 to 25,000 estimate.
Of course, those figures may be low now, too. The successful severing of the riser from the blowout preventer on Thursday increased the flow, perhaps by 20 percent (this recalls BP's petulant insistence in the middle of last month that estimates of higher than 5,000 bbd had to be wrong, in part because kinks in the riser were slowing the gusher). So assuming that 20 percent increase, the worst case scenario now would be a leak of between 14,400 bbd and 30,000 bbd. Or, at the high end, 63 percent more than the figure the "senior official" used Monday with those journalists in Miami.
This is no esoteric argument. Browner explained on Sunday why it's important to know how much oil is spewing: BP will owe fines based on how much is spilled, and court cases are likely to turn on the number as well -- a fact that had largely escaped the administration until McClatchy reporters Marisa Taylor, Erika Bolstad and Renee Schoof pointed out on May 20 that BP had a major financial interest in keeping the oil leak's size unknown and preferably unknowable (see their story here). The White House press office howled when that story appeared, though it would have been more appropriate to say "Thanks, we missed that one." The next day was when the administration finally broke away from BP and appointed an independent task force to figure it out.
Today, Erika Bolstad points out another reason for the Obama folks to be diligent in learning how much oil has leaked: BP owes us, the American taxpayers, royalties on all that oil that's been "extracted" from the well, whether BP got to sell it or not (and if the "top hat" works in corralling some of the spewing oil, BP can make a little offsetting revenue on it as well). Bolstad's story is here.
If you're kind, you might think only that the administration was, well, just not very quick on the uptake here and that it needed some newspaper reporters previously unschooled in deep water blowouts to figure out what was going on (for another example click here for McClatchy's Shashank Bengali's exploration of the huge loophole in the administration's most recent drilling moratorium). But the pattern suggests that the administration, from the White House and various Cabinet secretaries right down to the NOAA administrator, whose task it was to figure out how much oil was leaking and yet remained stubbornly uninterested in finding out until a university professor from Indiana testified before Congress, was deliberate in its efforts to downplay the size.
On Thursday, we learned from the Center for Public Integrity, which got hold of Coast Guard logs from the early days of the spill, that within a very few hours the Coast Guard thought what was left of the Deepwater Horizon well might gush 8,000 bbd, a number that soon grew to, worst case scenario, 64,000 bbd (the Center's article on the topic can be found here).
And we learn from ABC News that from the beginning the Coast Guard had ample access to videos that showed crude oil billowing out of the wrecked riser and blowout preventer, but didn't think to come up with a better estimate of the leak and didn't try to make the videos public so someone else could. (Interestingly, the Coast Guard told ABC that BP wouldn't release the videos, saying they were proprietary, which is the same reason the Interior Department is using to refuse to identify the 33 offshore exploratory rigs in the Gulf that are supposed to shut down "when it's safe to do so." Without their locations and their operators' names it'll be hard for anyone to check to see if the Interior Department actually enforces that order.)
Early Friday, BP engineers got the "top hat" on the spewing blowout preventer. If the device works as hoped, they'll begin to collect at least some of the spewing oil and carry it to the surface. At that point, we'll know how much is being collected. That will help establish how much is leaking.
That shouldn't be the end of the matter, however. When Congress is probing the whys and wherefores of the disaster, a few questions should be asked about why, from top to bottom and up to today, the Obama people don't want to confront reality on the size of the leak.