WASHINGTON — The runaway Deepwater Horizon well is pouring 35,000 to 60,000 barrels a day of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, the Obama administration said Tuesday.
The new estimate means that hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil will flow into the Gulf in the next several weeks until BP completes a plan it hopes will collect 60,000 to 80,000 barrels daily. That plan won't be fully implemented until the middle of next month.
Energy Secretary Steven Chu, a Nobel laureate in physics, called the new estimate "a significant step forward in our effort to put a number on the oil that is escaping from BP's well."
Chu, however, warned that the estimate is still preliminary, and that it might be revised upward.
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"As we continue to collect additional data and refine these estimates, it is important to realize that the numbers can change. In particular, the upper number is less certain — which is exactly why we have been planning for the worst case scenario at every stage and why we are continuing to focus on responding to the upper end of the estimate, plus additional contingencies," he said.
How much oil has been gushing from the well has been an open question since April 22, when the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig sank, taking a mile of drilling pipeline with it.
In the days after the sinking, BP and the Coast Guard said the well was leaking 1,000 barrels a day, then stuck to a revised estimate of 5,000 barrels a day for weeks, even after it became clear that large amounts of oil remained below the surface, out of sight.
After scientists told Congress that, based on brief videos of the spill, the rate might be as high as 95,000 barrels a day, the administration set up a panel of scientists known as the Flow Rate Technical Group to provide a better assessment.
The panel's first estimate said the well was releasing 12,000 to 25,000 barrels a day.
Then, last week, the Obama administration raised the estimate to 20,000 to 40,000 barrels per day, and perhaps more, before the June 3 shearing of the well's riser pipe from its dysfunctional blowout preventer.
Chu said Tuesday's estimate was based on a variety of data, including new pressure readings taken within the last 24 hours from inside the "top hat" containment dome through which BP is now capturing crude.
The estimates include the crude BP is capturing.
Marcia McNutt, the director of the U.S. Geological Survey and the head of the Flow Rate Technical Group, said that the scientists would continue to revise the estimate as they get new data.
BP has been capturing about 15,000 barrels a day for the past week aboard the Discoverer Enterprise drill ship, and hopes to expand that to 20,000 to 28,000 barrels a day this week. On Tuesday, a second vessel, the Q4000, with a capacity of 5,000 to 10,000 barrels a day, began capturing and burning oil, the joint government and BP information center said in a statement.
A third ship will allow the capture of 40,000 to 53,000 barrels a day by the end of June, BP hopes, before the addition of a fourth ship in mid July will complete the containment plan.
The well's gusher won't be stopped until at least August, when BP hopes to intersect with a relief well. Technicians will then pour cement into the runaway well, sealing it permanently.
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