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Government raises its spill estimate again

Scientists say up to 2.5m gallons leaking daily

By Ray Henry
Associated Press / June 16, 2010

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NEW ORLEANS — Scientists provided a new estimate for the amount of oil gushing from the ruptured well in the Gulf of Mexico yesterday that indicates it could be leaking up to 2.52 million gallons of crude a day.

A government panel of scientists said that the ruptured well is leaking between 1.47 million and 2.52 million gallons daily. The figures move the government’s worst-case estimates more in line with what an independent team had previously thought was the maximum size of the spill.

“This estimate brings together several scientific methodologies and the latest information from the sea floor, and represents a significant step forward in our effort to put a number on the oil that is escaping from BP’s well,’’ Energy Secretary Steven Chu said in a statement.

The latest numbers reflect an increase in the flow that scientists believe happened after undersea robots earlier this month cut off a kinked pipe near the sea floor that was believed to be restricting the flow of oil, just as a bend in a garden hose reduces water flow. BP officials have estimated that cutting the kinked pipe probably increased the flow by up to 20 percent.

The pipe was removed so BP could install a containment cap that is trapping leaking oil and drawing it to a ship waiting on the ocean surface.

The new numbers are based on a combination of scientific data, including an analysis of high-resolution video taken by underwater robots, pressure meters, sonar, and measurements of oil collected by the containment device on top of the well.

It is the fourth — and perhaps not last — time the federal government has had to increase its estimate of how much oil is gushing. At one point, the federal government claimed only 42,000 gallons were spilling a day and then it upped the number to 210,000 gallons.

As of yesterday, the maximum amount of oil that has gushed out of the well since the April 20 explosion is 116 million gallons, according to the estimates by scientists advising the federal government.

Meanwhile, a drill ship resumed siphoning off oil gushing from the blown-out well yesterday after a bolt of lightning struck the vessel and ignited a fire that halted containment efforts, the company said.

BP PLC spokesman Bill Salvin said that the drill ship, called the Discoverer Enterprise, resumed processing oil yesterday afternoon, about five hours after the fire caused an emergency shutdown. Engineers on the ship have been siphoning about 630,000 gallons of oil a day through a cap on top of the well.

He said there was no damage reported to the containment cap, and the Coast Guard approved BP restarting the system.

Salvin was unsure how long the fire lasted but said it was apparently small and confined to the top of the ship’s derrick.

A crew member aboard a nearby vessel said that his ship was called in to put out the fire, but by the time they arrived, it was already out.

“This is not an uncommon occurrence of this type and in this type of situation,’’ Salvin said, adding that the Discoverer Enterprise has a number of safeguards in place to deal with the possibility of a fire and “they all worked as designed.’’

The fire was another setback for the embattled company. It happened as President Obama was in Florida as part of a two-day visit to the stricken Gulf Coast and a day after the British oil giant announced that it hoped to trap as much as roughly 2.2 million gallons of oil daily by the end of June.