BP oil disaster: new oil numbers suggest more environmental damage

New figures could mean 42 million gallons to more than 100 million gallons of oil have already fouled the Gulf's delicate ecosystem.

By , AP

New numbers showing the amount of oil gushing from a well in the Gulf of Mexico may be double as much as previously thought means the crude is likely to travel farther away, threatening more birds, fish and other wildlife that call the fragile waters their home, scientists said Friday.

The new figures could mean 42 million gallons to more than 100 million gallons of oil have already fouled the Gulf's delicate ecosystem and are affecting people who live, work and play along the coast from Louisiana to Florida — and perhaps beyond.

More oil means the giant gooey cloud can spread out over a greater distance, having far worse consequences for the environment, said Paul Montagna, a marine biologist at Texas A&M University Corpus Christi.

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"Doubling the amount of oil does not have a linear effect, it doesn't double the consequences, it may instead have quadruple the consequences," Montagna, who studies the Gulf of Mexico deep sea reefs and other underwater ecosystems, said.

The new spill estimates released Thursday are worse than earlier ones — and far more costly for BP, which has seen its stock sink since the April 20 explosion that killed 11 workers and triggered the spill. Most of the new estimates had more oil flowing in an hour than what officials once said was spilling in an entire day.

The spill was flowing at a daily rate that could possibly have been as high as 2.1 million gallons, twice the highest number the federal government had been saying, said U.S. Geological Survey Director Marcia McNutt, who is coordinating estimates. But she said possibly more credible numbers are a bit lower.

Those estimates were the third — and perhaps not the last — time the U.S. government has had to increase its estimate of how much oil is gushing. Trying to clarify what has been a contentious and confusing issue, officials gave a wide variety of figures.

But none of the new estimates took into account the cutting of the well's riser pipe on June 3 — which BP said would increase the flow by about 20 percent — and subsequent placement of a cap, and no estimates were given for the amount of oil gushing from the well after the cut.

The increased estimates present a larger danger to the animals who live the Gulf's coastal marshes, said John Andrew Nyman, a wetlands ecologist at Louisiana State University. The brown pelican population was believed to be near its healthy capacity before the spill, but with the spill affecting a larger area, the increase in pelican deaths could seriously impact the bird's recent recovery, he said.

Also of particular concern were tuna, billfish such as marlin, sailfish and swordfish, which tend to spawn in the region of the Gulf affected by the spill, said Jim Franks, a fisheries biologist at the University of Southern Mississippi Gulf Coast Research Laboratory.

"We are now into spawning season. The location and magnitude of the spill, the young life stages of these fish, the larval forms, are in a precarious situation," Franks said.

But some scientists said they weren't surprised by the government's new estimates, which some independent researchers had been measuring for weeks.

"The new rate, 40,000 to 50,000 barrels, is in line with what independent scientists reported weeks ago," said Samantha Joye, a professor of marine sciences at the University of Georgia who was on the team that detected large, underwater plumes of oil.

The oil flow estimates are not complete and different teams have come up with different numbers. A new team from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute came in with even higher estimates, ranging from 1 million gallons a day to 2.1 million gallons. If the high end is true, that means nearly 107 million gallons have spilled since April 20.

The Obama administration's point man for the Gulf Coast oil spill acknowledged Friday that reliable numbers are hard to get.

"I think we're still dealing with the flow estimate. We're still trying to refine those numbers," said Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said.

But even using other numbers that federal officials and scientists call a more reasonable range would have about 63 million gallons spilling since the rig explosion. If that amount was put in gallon milk jugs, they would line up for nearly 5,500 miles. That's the distance from the spill to London, where BP is headquartered, and then continuing on to Rome.

By comparison, the Exxon Valdez, the previous worst U.S. oil spill, was just about 11 million gallons. The new figures mean Deepwater Horizon is producing an Exxon Valdez size spill every five to 13 days.

Meanwhile, oil still was washing up on Gulf beaches. But it wasn't as bad Friday morning at Orange Beach, Ala., as it had been earlier in the week. Waves brought in a foot-long chunk of what appeared to be solid oil on the white sand. One side was flat and curved, while the other was honeycombed with bubbles and a single spot where crude oozed out.

With all sorts of estimates for what's flowing from the BP well. McNutt said the most credible range at the moment is between 840,000 gallons and 1.68 million gallons a day. She added that it was "maybe a little bit more." Scientists used sonar, pressure readings and video analysis to make the new estimates.

Previous estimates had put the range roughly between half a million and a million gallons a day, perhaps higher. At one point, the federal government claimed only 42,000 gallons were spilling a day and then it upped the number to 210,000 gallons.

Allen said that it will be at least July before BP has tankers in place to capture oil spilling from the well. And if undersea efforts to direct the oil to the surface succeed, it will take weeks to get the proper equipment in place to hold it, he said.

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