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As Obama scolds BP, debate brews over how much oil is leaking

Government and BP estimates of the amount of oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico are too low, say scientists. Some equate the flow to one Exxon Valdez spill every five days.

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Part of the challenge – and the frustration – in coping with the blow-out lies in determining just how much oil the submarine gusher is releasing.

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Official estimates from the federal government and BP, which owns the oil lease the Deepwater Horizon was working, place the leak rate at some 5,000 barrels (210,000 gallons) of oil a day. That alone is has been enough to trigger a regional emergency response.

But independent experts say the leak rate is likely to be much larger.

A week ago, Florida State University marine scientist Ian McDonald put the leak rate at around 25,000 barrels a day.

And in a report Friday morning, National Public Radio cited estimates from three independent scientists who say at least 50,000 barrels of oil a day are flowing into the Gulf waters. That would imply that the Deepwater Horizon disaster could be releasing at least the equivalent of one Exxon Valdez spill every five days.

These estimates have wide margins of error, cautions Timothy Crone, a scientist at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, N.Y.

In an email exchange, Dr. Crone, one of the three scientists NPR contacted, noted that his approach honed on estimating the material spewing from deep-sea hydrothermal vents.

He says that videos of the blow-out taken by robotic cameras at the well head lack the detail needed for more precise estimates of the flow. Moreover, the material emerging from the well head is a mix of methane, mud, and oil.

Taking all that into account, he puts the flow rate at roughly 50,000 barrels of oil a day.

"My numbers should be viewed with caution," he warns, but adds, "the flows are almost certainly higher than 5,000 barrels a day."

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