Lies, damn lies, and oil spill statistics

By Felix Salmon
May 14, 2010
Justin Gillis has a great story about how no one with the ability to do anything about it seems remotely interested in measuring the severity of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The ubiquitous 5,000-barrels-a-day number seems to be a massive underestimate, and the stated reason for not getting a better figure is weak indeed:

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Justin Gillis has a great story about how no one with the ability to do anything about it seems remotely interested in measuring the severity of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The ubiquitous 5,000-barrels-a-day number seems to be a massive underestimate, and the stated reason for not getting a better figure is weak indeed:

A spokesman, David H. Nicholas, said in an e-mail message that “the estimated rate of flow would not affect either the direction or scale of our response, which is the largest in history.” …

“I think the estimate at the time was, and remains, a reasonable estimate,” said Dr. Lubchenco, the NOAA administrator. “Having greater precision about the flow rate would not really help in any way. We would be doing the same things.”

Why is the NOAA backing BP up on this? Knowing the size of the problem may or may not help in terms of being able to fix this particular problem. But it’s certainly going to be important going forwards.

What’s more, the current estimate could hardly have been friendlier towards BP if it had tried:

The 5,000-barrel-a-day estimate was produced in Seattle by a NOAA unit that responds to oil spills. It was calculated with a protocol known as the Bonn convention that calls for measuring the extent of an oil spill, using its color to judge the thickness of oil atop the water, and then multiplying.

However, Alun Lewis, a British oil-spill consultant who is an authority on the Bonn convention, said the method was specifically not recommended for analyzing large spills like the one in the Gulf of Mexico, since the thickness was too difficult to judge in such a case.

Even when used for smaller spills, he said, correct application of the technique would never produce a single point estimate, like the government’s figure of 5,000 barrels a day, but rather a range that would likely be quite wide.

Why release a point estimate? Well, if the NOAA had released a range — say 3,000 to 30,000 barrels a day — then the press would have gravitated to the higher number, and talked about a spill of “as much as 30,000 barrels a day”, and that would be the main number people remembered. But it’s not the NOAA’s job to do PR for BP. And it is the NOAA’s job to get as much good information about this oil spill as possible.

So let’s get down there and measure this thing.

19 comments

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BP has been slow and apathetic to the oil spill situation from the beginning.It took a week for it to wake up from its stupor and look for help on stopping the oil spilling for its rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Obama’s visit and state and federal criticism has made it sit up .
This is a classic case of lawyers,politicians and oil executives fighting it out for money and power ,while the human costs mount for ordinary people.Read more at http://greenworldinvestor.com

Posted by AGreenInvestor | Report as abusive

We’ve all been operating under the assumption that this spill would be capped. But perhaps it’s time to ask how much oil this well might contain, and potentially spew.

Posted by wallypip | Report as abusive

its all part of the coverup…same as the 300,000 gallons of toxic dispersants to keep it from reaching the surface…

Posted by rjs0 | Report as abusive

Estimating the oil flowrate seems like a simple exercise. The diameter of the pipe is known, (and hence the flow area is known) and one should be able to reasonably estimate the velocity of the oil through the flow area.

Just looking at the video, I would estimate the velocity around 5-6 feet/sec. Assuming that all the oil is flowing out of the pipe and no other opening and assuming the pipe is 3 inches in diameter, the flow rate can be calculated as 190,000 gallons per day (velocity V = 6 feet/sec) So the 200,000 gallons per day does not seem too far off.

If all the oil is coming through the pipe, the only two variables needed to be estimated to calculate the flow rate is the diameter of the pipe and the velocity. An estimate of the diameter of the pipe of 3 inches seems reasonable, I have not seen too many drilling pipes larger than that.

Also a velocity of 6 feet/sec also seems reasonable given the video and the fact that because frictional flow losses in a pipe varies with the velocity squared, one hardly ever encounters pipe velocites above 20 feet/sec. (A flow velocity of 20 feet/sec will produce (20/6)^2 = 11.11 times the pipe friction losses of a velocity of 6 feet/sec).

Posted by high_al | Report as abusive

high_al: all fine, except that the diameter of the well pipe is actually 9 inches.

Posted by shrivti1 | Report as abusive

BP is doing more to stop offshore drilling than all the environmentalists put together

Posted by vinlander | Report as abusive

Thnaks for the correction. (A 3 inch pipe did seem a little small)

If it is 9 in, multiply the flow rate by 9 ((9/3)^2).

So instead of 5,000 barrels/day, the estimate goes to 45,000 barrels/day.

Posted by high_al | Report as abusive

Who the hell runs this country. I voted for President Obama and half the time he acts as if his head is up his arse. Whether it is the taking the financial industry to task, the commitment of troops in the Middle East or this ecological cluster %#*%, it seems he has a problem with aggressively expressing his authority as President of the United States. If I am not mistaken the territory where the oil spilled occurred is owned by the United States and the Interior Department has dominion. Then as the leader of the United States order a survey of the sub surface waters to determine the extent of the oil. IDIOTS!!!!!!!

Posted by csodak | Report as abusive

“So let’s get down there and measure this thing.”

Do you know anything about chemistry and physics? Its not so easy, to just go down there and measure. First, the oil density changes at the point of release as it moves upward. Second, the oil is mixed with methane, water and there are reactions going on within the plume. While flow can be theoretically calculated, it must assume these variables. Also, its a mile deep, only robotic submersibles can go down there, and precisely measuring it as you envision, is secondary to stopping the oil flow.

I think you really need to research the IXTOC I blowout. It is analogous to this incident, except it was far worse, with much higher flow rates, and final oil spill totals. Interestingly enough, compared to the total spill, very little oil washed up on beaches. Most settled to the sea floor, or dispersed. This appears to be similar, in that very little of the spill has actually washed ashore. So, the numbers dont really matter, only that the flow can be halted.

Posted by LucidOne | Report as abusive

Obama doesn’t have any incentive to actually get things right, as more and more problems come to light he can get his agenda of re-engineering the USA from a capitalist society production base pay with the elite producers to a society of Governmental control, nanny State society. All they really need is over 50% of voters reliant on the Gov enough to favor a very large government to keep the machine in power and money to those it deems in favor at the time. As they say never let a disaster go to waste. Like now he is all over the Banks for misconduct but no mention of Freddie or Fannie Mae which is and was the worst waste and main contributor of or financial disaster. We will be in more hard times, and a double dip recession without a complete reversal of this agenda. Its already a trillion dollars wasted. Hope we stop. BP has the resources to compensate those that were effected and clean the spill up.
Right now they are bringing all these temporary fixes to keep public out cry from getting out of hand, there is only one true fix, is to drill another hole to plug this up. Which they are doing as we write, but will take 1-3+ months.

Posted by rancher5 | Report as abusive

“But it’s certainly going to be important going forwards.”

Why? Can’t you at least explain why this is so critical that it warrants your article? Isn’t such an explanation a reasonable expectation of someone attempting, even poorly, to make a point?

What is critical is containing the spill as soon as possible. Whatever is flowing now will continue to flow regardless of how accurately it’s captured in some entertainment article you wish to write. Or perhaps you’re seeking data for a future lawsuit. I don’t know. Is there any benefit to the environment of capturing an accurate flow rate for an impact that will not be understood for years? For an impact that is clearly beyond mankind’s control at any depth and on any coastline, short of engineering an ocean floor containment solution?

How much are you willing to spend on getting this critical data point at the expense of containment efforts? How do you propose doing it? Where’s the rocket scientist?

Please stop making stupid points. And keep that “why” business in mind next time.

Posted by trestle17 | Report as abusive

high_al at 11:07am: “An estimate of the diameter of the pipe of 3 inches seems reasonable, I have not seen too many drilling pipes larger than that. ”
high_al at 3:42pm: “(A 3 inch pipe did seem a little small)”

nnniiiceee.. why don’t you just admit you have no clue what you’re talking about.

Posted by niveditas | Report as abusive

I don’t really see how the actual flow rate is all that relevant. It’s not going to change the attack. BP will still be trying to contain the spill as quickly as possible. It’s not going to change the rate at which the relief wells are drilling to cut off the original well. Whatever number you assign to the flow is not going to change the current distribution of the oil on the surface.

This is just another one of those non-issues that the media comes up with, each journalist trying to trump the other with a “new angle.”

I agree with lucid. It’s not so easy to just go get the number. To accurately measure the rate, you need to isolate the flow such that none of it is leaking. You need to know how much natural gas and water are mixed with the oil. People who say these kinds of things, or who insist on a risk free world, have probably never taken a science course.

Posted by swimmer | Report as abusive

high_al at 11:07am: “An estimate of the diameter of the pipe of 3 inches seems reasonable, I have not seen too many drilling pipes larger than that. ”
high_al at 3:42pm: “(A 3 inch pipe did seem a little small)”

high_al: all fine, except that the diameter of the well pipe is actually 9 inches.

The pipe is 21 inches wide.

Where did 3 and 9 inches come from?

http://www.nola.com/news/gulf-oil-spill/ index.ssf/2010/05/insertion-tube_strateg y_for_co.html

Posted by alexhiggins732 | Report as abusive

Gulf drillers’ official spill volume estimate appears about as accurate as other avoidable oil-related disasters e.g. civilian death tolls and real cost of waging America’s illegal wars on the Middle East.

Posted by HBC | Report as abusive

Along with methane and water there is probably dirt with heavy metals as well. Can someone explain why if you can see this pipe why you couldn’t just crimp the end of it with some sort of Jaws of Life devise? If it could contain it temporarily you might be able to secure some sort of dome over it. But if they did shut it off then they couldn’t try to siphon off some it for more cash. This is criminal. Lock some people up and see how quickly they shut it off.

Posted by scrypton | Report as abusive

“Obama doesn’t have any incentive to actually get things right, as more and more problems come to light he can get his agenda of re-engineering the USA from a capitalist society production base pay with the elite producers to a society of Governmental control…” rancher

You make an interesting point. BPs new name is Beyond Petroleum. And they are aligned with money in the global warming agenda. As another example, Aetna asked for a 35% increase in rates, just when the Health Care Bill was really hot. Another coincidence? There have been quite a few coincidences during this administration.

I find it ludicrous that this thing has not been fixed. I also find it odd that after so many off-shore well drillings that this happened in the first place. There are huge platforms in the North Sea that have been there for decades. That area makes the Gulf look like a swimming pool.

Posted by SkippyStone | Report as abusive

“But if they did shut it off then they couldn’t try to siphon off some it for more cash. This is criminal. Lock some people up and see how quickly they shut it off.”

If they shut it off today, all that oil that’s now leaking off would remain in the wellbore and could be recoverable later. The oil that has leaked off is worthless. At a range of 5,000 to 20,000 barrels per day, that’s 120,000 to 480,000 barrels lost. At $80/barrel that’s $10 to $40 million they’ve lost in oil revenues by not shutting it off immediately. In addition, all the lawsuits and cleanup costs…

Force some people to think for more than two minutes and you’d see a lot fewer silly comments like this.

“I also find it odd that after so many off-shore well drillings (sic) that this happened in the first place.”

Do you also find it odd that after so many safe flights, a plane crashed last week? Offshore drilling is a very high tech proposition in a dangerous environment, and you find human error to be evidence of a conspiracy? :-) Oh boy.

“There are huge platforms in the North Sea that have been there for decades.”

The first platform in the Gulf of Mexico was built in 1947, long before any wells were drilled in the North Sea. There are far more rigs in the Gulf than in the North Sea.

The misinformation out there is amazing. All of the sudden, everyone’s an oil industry expert.

Posted by swimmer | Report as abusive

alexhiggens: The riser pipe has a 20 inch interior diameter. However, the drill pipe that is actually sunk into the reservoir has a 9 inch diameter. That is the pipe that is relevant for determining flow.

It’s possible that the pipe may be structurally compromised, or there may be frozen crystals built up, etc. which would affect oil flow. Also, as the oil rises through the pipe, methane gas comes out of suspension as pressure lessens (like the carbonation in soda), so it’s tough to know how much is gas and how much is oil.

That said, the pipe into the well is 9 inches.

Posted by shrivti1 | Report as abusive