Thirty days after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and sank in the Gulf of Mexico, the government still has no good idea how much oil is gushing out, where it is headed or whether the chemicals being used to clean it up are making matters worse. Until this week, the government left most of this information firmly in the hands of oil giant BP, the company responsible for the spill. There will be plenty of time to question why the government lacked the capacity to respond to the spill. But at the very least it should have a grip on the scope of a disaster that threatens the environment and livelihoods in four gulf states.
The Coast Guard, the Navy, a half-dozen federal agencies and tens of thousands of government and private sector workers need to know one central fact: How much oil is spewing from the rig's broken pipes? Emergency responders and Gulf Coast communities need to know how much and how fast the oil is gushing to determine when and where to move ships, cleanup crews and the limited quantity of containment booms. Officials also need to know where the oil is ending up in the water column to determine the best strategy for removing it or reducing its toxicity to sea and wildlife.
BP has controlled the flow of information from the start, and only this week did the federal government force the company to loosen its grip. It was about time, because BP's credibility is shot. The company initially estimated the well was leaking 42,000 gallons of oil a day. After experts questioned the figure, BP upped the estimate fivefold, to 210,000 gallons. When BP finally succeeded in siphoning off some of the leaking oil, the company said it was recovering about 42,000 gallons a day. It upped that figure Thursday to 210,000 gallons — the total amount the company had estimated was gushing into the sea.
BP released a live video feed of the leak this week after Congress blasted the company, and it clearly shows BP seriously underestimated the amount of oil spewing into the gulf. Experts have told Congress they fear the leak could be 10 or more times greater than what the company estimates. This week — four weeks after the fact — the Coast Guard announced it established a flow-rate team. The Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday ordered BP to start using a less toxic dispersant to break apart the oil both on the surface and underwater. The United States has never allowed dispersants to be used so widely before — 655,000 gallons had been dropped on the surface and underwater as of Friday. The EPA says it wants to make sure the chemicals are working and not compounding the ecological damage.
The government is leaving too much to BP and too much to chance. While the EPA ordered BP on Thursday to make all spill-related information — from video to environmental sampling data — quickly and easily available to the public, it should not have taken a month and a poke from Congress to expose this disaster to broader public scrutiny. The nation needs to hear more from its government and less from the communications operation at BP. That could start today, when the Coast Guard is expected to release a more detailed estimate of the amount of leaking oil. But the government needs to bring a much firmer hand to the cleanup effort. BP's false assurances only underscore the need for transparency as the nation struggles to grasp the scope of this disaster.