Source On April 22, 2010, as the doomed Deepwater Horizon oil rig was sinking off the Louisiana coast, a maritime expert told BP that its Macondo well would spew 82,000 barrels of crude a day into the Gulf of Mexico if nothing blocked the opening. At that moment, the U.S. government was trying to get BP to say how much oil might be flowing into the sea so officials could answer a crescendo of questions from the media and, more importantly, muster the proper equipment to plug the leak.
John McCusker, The Times-PicayuneShips on the scene of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill 50 miles offshore from Louisiana on May 29, 2010, more than a month after the leak began.
But BP officials reacted to the alarming estimate that afternoon by demanding it be kept secret, according to an email that BP agreed to release Friday in federal court in New Orleans.
When BP finally provided the Coast Guard with an estimate of the leak to announce publicly two days later, it was a paltry 1,000 barrels a day.
The April 22 email from Rob Marshall, BP’s subsea manager for the Gulf of Mexico, to deepwater project manager Gary Imm and corporate vice president Jonathan Sprague is an exhibit in the massive oil spill litigation slated for trial Feb. 27.
Marshall advised Imm and Sprague that an expert named Alistair Johnston had a new model for how much oil might be spewing from the wellhead a mile below the surface and 50 miles from the Mississippi River delta. Johnston’s new estimate, Marshall wrote, was 82,000 barrels a day if the well has an open hole.
The response from Imm suggests that BP and the Coast Guard were already butting heads over how much oil was coming out of the busted well — and that 82,000 barrels a day wasn’t a number BP wanted anyone to hear.
“A number of people have been looking at this and we already have had difficult discussions with the USCG (Coast Guard) on the numbers,” Imm wrote back to Marshall and Sprague. “Please tell Alistair not to communicate to anyone on this.”
“Yes, he knows about confidentiality,” Marshall responded.
BP declined to comment Friday.
As it turned out, the hole was not unobstructed. A massive stack of valves and pistons blocked some of the flow and response teams later found the crude coming out of three leaks in the pipes that emanated from the wellhead.
Months later, after much wrangling and analysis, government scientists determined the oil actually was shooting out at a rate 62,000 barrels a day on April 22.
But the idea that BP and the Coast Guard weren’t being fully honest about the spill rate came to dominate the conversation for months. President Barack Obama’s Oil Spill Commission reported on the matter, finding that BP had no scientific support for its initial assertion of 1,000 barrels a day on April 24.
A federal scientist corrected that to 5,000 barrels a day on April 27 and that remained the official estimate for a whole month, even though independent scientists were insisting the flow rate was at least four times greater and possibly as high as 100,000 barrels a day.
The flow rate is a critical issue. At first, it was important as the oil industry and the government tried to figure out a safe way to close in the well. It also played a role in establishing how damaging the spill would be for BP, and several large investors have sued BP in federal court in Houston alleging that the company used low-ball estimates to artificially prop up the company’s stock price.
Federal investigators looked into the possibility that BP officials might have engaged in insider trading based on their knowledge of larger flow rates before they were disclosed to the public. No charges have been filed.
The rate remains a crucial issue because a total flow rate must be used to determine how much oil polluted the waters over more than 86 days so federal prosecutors can set appropriate civil pollution fines. Those fines could total close to $20 billion are based on the current official estimate of 4.9 million total barrels spilled.