There is now one more reason why the flow rate matters after an offshore oil spill: Botched estimates in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill may help BP avoid financial penalties. BP's recently disclosed plan to challenge the federal government's estimates underscores once again how regulators failed to honestly assess the dangers of offshore drilling before and after the spill. But BP can't be allowed to profit from that failure by paying less than it should for the environmental damage it caused.
When the spill began April 20, the federal government appeared unwilling to question BP's estimates of how much oil was gushing into the Gulf of Mexico. For weeks, the Coast Guard and others — with implicit support from the White House — dramatically underestimated the size of the leak as 1,000 to 5,000 barrels a day. And they contended the government's full-fledged response to contain the damage wouldn't change regardless of how much oil was flowing into the gulf.
But in a testament to the importance of independent and public-interest research, a cadre of well regarded scientists — including Florida State University's Ian MacDonald — finally embarrassed a reluctant government into changing the estimate. After the scientists had publicly criticized the estimates for weeks, the federal government on June 10 finally released a more broadly accepted estimate of 25,000 to 30,000 barrels daily.
Now the spill commission appointed by President Barack Obama has confirmed that the size of the leak mattered. The commission said the low estimates may have hindered response and the sense of urgency.
Perhaps even more infuriating, however, is that all this dilly-dallying may ultimately help BP skirt responsibility. The company in October wrote the spill commission that it planned to challenge the government's spill estimates, contending they are inflated by 20 to 50 percent. There is a clear financial incentive. Under the Clean Water Act, BP faces fines of between $5.4 billion and $21 billion, or $1,100 to $4,300 for each barrel of oil released into the gulf. Cutting the estimate in half could save BP up to $10.5 billion. By way of comparison: The entire Environmental Protection Agency budget in 2010 was $10.3 billion.
So more than seven months after the explosion, the same BP that hindered every effort to accurately measure how much oil was flowing from the damaged rig now contests the estimate of how much oil spilled so it can reduce the size of its fine. President Obama and U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, are encouraging Congress to agree to set aside the vast majority of BP's fines for the gulf states' restoration plans. That only makes sense considering the oil spill's impact will unfold for years to come. But just as important is marshaling federal resources and scientific data to ensure that BP pays for what it spilled, not just the barrels it's willing to claim.