Truth and lies in oil-skimming statistics

By Felix Salmon
July 6, 2010
Kimberly Kindy has an excellent and very sobering report on the monstrous discrepancies between the various numbers being bandied around when it comes to the amount of oil that BP is able to skim off the Gulf of Mexico every day.

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Kimberly Kindy has an excellent and very sobering report on the monstrous discrepancies between the various numbers being bandied around when it comes to the amount of oil that BP is able to skim off the Gulf of Mexico every day.

As commenter hsvkitty points out, BP only got the permits to start drilling at the Deepwater Horizon site in the first place because the Minerals Management Service believed their statement that they “could recover 197 percent of the daily discharge from an uncontrolled blowout of 250,000 barrels per day”: a March report from BP said that it had the capacity to skim and remove 491,721 barrels of oil per day.

Even after the explosion, BP was still insisting that it had “skimming capacity of more than 171,000 barrels per day, with more available if needed.”

So far, it has managed to skim less than 900 barrels per day. Add burn-offs, and you get to just over 300,000 barrels in total, over 77 days — that’s less than 4,000 barrels per day.

BP’s reaction to being massively wrong, by a factor of over 100, is to grab onto the biggest numbers it can find — to try, in other words, to deal with the optics, rather than the reality. Take the much-vaunted super-skimmer, for instance. Some reports say that it “can collect up to half a million barrels of oil a day”, but it’s much more accurate to say that it can theoretically collect that many barrels of contaminated water, which is only about 10% oil. And, as Kindy drily notes, “thus far, it has been unable to produce those results in the gulf.”

BP knew full well that a blow-out at the Deepwater Horizon site would involve oil bubbling up to the surface from miles below sea level, rather than being spilled directly onto the surface from a tanker. But it never seemed to stop to think that much of the oil would never surface. BP also said that much of its skimming capacity would come from outsourcing skimming operations to Marine Spill Response — but BP never asked MSR whether they could hit its marks, and neither did MMS, when BP submitted its insanely overoptimistic numbers.

All of which is a sign of the knee-jerk credulity that most of us exhibit when faced with a large and seemingly highly accurate number. 491,721, you say? Well, that must be true — or at least in the ballpark.

It would be interesting to compare that number with other oil companies’ projections of their oil-skimming capacity in the Gulf. Their rigs haven’t exploded, of course, but what did they say they could skim off in the event that the unthinkable were to happen? In hindsight, it seems that any number over a few thousand barrels per day would clearly have been a massive overestimate. But of course the bigger the number submitted, the easier it was to get the necessary approvals. You can see why BP exaggerated so much, and why there would have been enormous incentives for its rivals to do likewise.

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