Even after installing a containment cap last week, the federal government and BP still don't know how much oil is spewing out of the broken well into the Gulf of Mexico, but it seems increasingly likely that it's much more than estimated.
BP has been increasing the amount of oil it can collect, and it expects that the amount will continue to go up, the company's senior vice president for exploration, Kent Wells, said Monday. In the three days since the company put a cap on the well, it went from collecting 6,000 barrels a day to 11,000 barrels on Sunday. When a second oil collection vessel is in place, the company will be able to collect 20,000 barrels a day.
Retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the government's point man on the spill, said Monday that it wasn't clear that BP would capture and produce that much oil.
"We just know that's their capacity. We still haven't established what the flow rate is," he said. "That is the big unknown that we're trying to hone in and get the exact numbers on."
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Even so, BP's videos of the gusher showed black oil continuing to flow heavily from all around the wellhead as the crude leaks from around the cap's edges.
A team of experts from government science agencies and universities has estimated that at a minimum 12,000 to 25,000 barrels a day are flowing. Members of the team have said they haven't been able to estimate an upper end of the flow because their data from BP were insufficient. They have continued to work with additional data and are expected to give a new estimate late this week or next week.
In an interview, Ira Leifer, an associate researcher at the Marine Science Institute of the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a member of the group of outside experts working to calculate the amount of oil flowing from the well, said Friday that he had examined satellite data and determined that the flow had been increasing over time, especially since the failed "top kill" operation, BP's effort last month to clog the leak.
All along, BP said that cutting the pipe for the containment operation could increase the flow by 20 percent.
Allen said that one reason it was important to be able to estimate the rate of flow was so that officials could know how much flow the cap could handle and how much would be lost into the Gulf. Officials say the gusher won't be over until BP finishes drilling relief wells, probably in August.
Allen said the containment cap would have to be watched "very, very closely."
"We ought to be ruthless in our oversight of BP, and trying to understand what oil is not being contained that's leaking out around that rubber seal, once we know what that flow rate is," he said. "And we need to understand completely that if we have severe weather in the form of a hurricane, there may be times where we're going to have to disconnect that operation and re-establish, and during that time we're going to have oil coming to the surface again."
Allen said early Monday that BP had closed one of the four vents on the cap and would try to close the others to get more oil flowing to the containment vessel. However, Wells, the BP vice president, later in the day said that the company had changed its view about the need to close the vents.
At first glance, it seemed that closing the vents was necessary to maximize the amount of oil and gas that could be collected, but that didn't prove to be the case, he said. Keeping some vents open gave the company more flexibility when it had to shut down temporarily during a storm, as it did during a thunderstorm Sunday, he said.
Allen and Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, said during the news briefing that they didn't know whether BP was required to pay federal royalties on the oil it was collecting from the runaway well.
McClatchy Newspapers reported Thursday that BP stood to make millions of dollars on the oil. The Department of the Interior's Minerals Management Service wouldn't say at that time whether BP would pay royalties to the U.S government on the oil that it captures.
Department of Interior spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff said Monday, however: "The Department of the Interior will ensure that all royalties owed to the United States are collected."