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BP live feed doesn't lie: Is BP oil spill plume worse than before?

BP says it's capturing the 'majority' of oil from the Macondo wellhead after placing a 'top cap' siphon on it last week. Yet judging by the size of the plume on the BP live feed, some fear the BP oil spill is even worse after the operation than before.

By Staff writer / June 8, 2010

Leaking oil is pictured at the site of the Deepwater Horizon BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in this frame grab from the BP live feed.

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Atlanta

Once constricted by the crumpled riser pipe, the full flow of the runaway Macondo wellhead in the BP oil spill burst forth last week when BP sawed through the pipe left over from when the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and eventually sank on April 20.

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BP placed a "top cap" device with a rubberized seal on top of the pipe to siphon away the oil, a move that some marked as a long-awaited breakthrough in the six-week battle against geologic forces, tapped by man, that now threaten the ecology and livelihood of the US Gulf of Mexico.

But judging from recent images from the BP live feed "spill cam," the gusher is still gushing – and hard. And even if BP is capturing 14,800 barrels a day, as Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said it did yesterday, the increased flow at the wellhead itself could, some scientists say, mean the operation is a wash, or may even have worsened the ultimate flow as a result.

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“That is the big unknown that we’re trying to hone in and get the exact numbers on,” Mr. Allen, President Obama's point man on the spill, told reporters Monday. “And we’ll make those numbers known as we get them. We’re not trying to low-ball it or high-ball it. It is what it is.”

The question of how much oil is leaking has been crucial from Day 1 of the crisis. Since BP is liable for every barrel spilled, its estimates have been viewed with skepticism and even ridicule. A NOAA flow-rate group eventually raised the original BP estimate of 5,000 barrels per day, placing it between 12,000 and 19,000 barrels a day. Others have said it's really more, perhaps as much as 30,000 barrels per day.

Considering the questions about earlier estimates and the increased flow from the cut riser pipe, at least one expert – Ira Leifer, a member of the government's Flow Rate Technical Group (FRTG) – believes the current flow could be greater than before. The group had estimated a 20 percent increase in the flow after the cut of the riser pipe.

“The well pipe clearly is fluxing way more than it did before,” Dr. Leifer, a researcher at the University of California, Santa Barbara, tells The New York Times. “By way more, I don’t mean 20 percent, I mean multiple factors.”

The flow rate is difficult to measure, but the new top cap device should make it easier, since the oil flowing onto surface tankers can be measured to the pint. But those tapping into the BP live feed can witness the massive geyser rising from around the top of the lower marine riser package to which BP attached the top-cap device.

Even at the current capture rate of 14,800 barrels, or 621,000 gallons, a day, the containment cap would represent BP’s greatest success so far.

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