WASHINGTON — An Obama administration task force formed this week to determine how much crude is surging into the Gulf of Mexico from a wrecked oil well includes an engineering professor who's told Congress he believes the spill is far larger than originally thought, but not a representative from BP, the oil company responsible for the spill.
Administration officials, who've stressed for nearly a month BP's preeminent role in cleanup efforts as the "responsible party," offered no explanation for BP's exclusion from the panel, which a top Coast Guard official said was expected to deliver a new estimate of the spill's size early next week.
A Coast Guard spokesman, Christopher O'Neil, said that BP would be a “welcome and needed contributor” to the task force by providing “reams of data” that the panel will need to make a decision on the flow rate.
The move to keep BP from being a full member of the task force may be intended to provide credibility for the new estimate after nearly two weeks of open challenges to the official 5,000 barrel a day estimate. Experts who've studied videos of the spill pegged the amounts at many times that, and legal experts told McClatchy this week that a low estimate would favor BP in future court cases involving the spill.
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BP's own announcement Thursday that a tube inserted into one of the leaks was now siphoning 5,000 barrels of oil to the surface, while a live video feed showed crude still billowing from the pipe, further discredited the official estimate.
Administration officials first mentioned that a task force was being planned in congressional testimony on Tuesday, but details of the panel's makeup and its activities emerged only Friday, after BP announced, erroneously, as it turned out, that the panel's new estimate was expected on Saturday.
“This team is not going to be rushed or pushed to come up with an answer too quickly because you really have to do a rigorous analysis,” Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry said Friday, after BP said on its Web site that the task force had been given a Saturday deadline.
Landry said results were likely “sometime next week.”
The task force is being chaired by David Moore, a petroleum engineer who is coordinator of the national outer continental shelf oil spill program at the Minerals Management Service, and Catherine Cesnik, who leads the sustainable building policy for the Department of the Interior.
Among its members are Steve Wereley, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., who told Congress that, based on recent videos, he estimated that 95,000 barrels of oil per day were pouring from two different leaks.
In addition to Wereley, the panel will include other university researchers and representatives of the Coast Guard, the Minerals Management Service, the Department of Energy, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the U.S. Geological Survey.
“We’re all very concerned about the actual amount of oil and this does influence things down the road,” Landry said. She called an accurate estimate of the spill's size “a very important part of our oversight of the responsible party,” meaning BP.
Mike Lutz, a Coast Guard spokesman, said the team would study videos of the oil gushing from the leaks, as well as information about pressure and the ruined equipment on the sea floor. He said he didn’t have information about whether they’d use other equipment, such as sonar, to measure the flow.
Adm. Thad Allen, the commandant of the Coast Guard and the Obama's point man on the cleanup, said in an interview earlier in the week that government scientists might put sensors near the leak to get a better understanding of the amount of oil entering the water.
On Friday, BP said it's been supporting the government’s efforts to figure out how fast oil is flowing from the well. Its statement said it had all along “made it a priority to quickly and consistently” give NOAA and the Coast Guard the information they requested to make a better estimate of the flow.
It also implicitly criticized Wereley and other experts for their challenges to the official estimate. BP said that while the riser — the pipe between the wellhead and the drilling platform — was 19.5 inches in diameter, the accident damaged it and reduced its diameter by 30 percent. It said a drill pipe trapped inside it reduced the flow by 10 percent more.
“Thus, some third party estimates of flow, which assume a 19.5 inch diameter, are inaccurate,” it said. It also said that about half of the oil-gas mix that it has recovered from the broken pipe so far has been natural gas, though it did not say how it had arrived at that figure.