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Jun 11, 2010 1:54 PM by Chris Welty

New Oil Numbers May Mean More Environmental Damage

HOUSTON (AP) - New numbers showing the amount of oil gushing
from a well in the Gulf of Mexico may be double as much as
previously thought means the crude is likely to travel farther
away, threatening more birds, fish and other wildlife that call the
fragile waters their home, scientists said Friday.
The new figures could mean 42 million gallons to more than 100
million gallons of oil have already fouled the Gulf's delicate
ecosystem and are affecting people who live, work and play along
the coast from Louisiana to Florida - and perhaps beyond.
More oil means the giant gooey cloud can spread out over a
greater distance, having far worse consequences for the
environment, said Paul Montagna, a marine biologist at Texas A&M
University Corpus Christi.
"Doubling the amount of oil does not have a linear effect, it
doesn't double the consequences, it may instead have quadruple the
consequences," Montagna, who studies the Gulf of Mexico deep sea
reefs and other underwater ecosystems, said.
The new spill estimates released Thursday are worse than earlier
ones - and far more costly for BP, which has seen its stock sink
since the April 20 explosion that killed 11 workers and triggered
the spill. Most of the new estimates had more oil flowing in an
hour than what officials once said was spilling in an entire day.
The spill was flowing at a daily rate that could possibly have
been as high as 2.1 million gallons, twice the highest number the
federal government had been saying, said U.S. Geological Survey
Director Marcia McNutt, who is coordinating estimates. But she said
possibly more credible numbers are a bit lower.
Those estimates were the third - and perhaps not the last - time
the U.S. government has had to increase its estimate of how much
oil is gushing. Trying to clarify what has been a contentious and
confusing issue, officials gave a wide variety of figures on
Thursday.
But none of the estimates took into account the cutting of the
well's riser pipe on June 3 - which BP said would increase the flow
by about 20 percent - and subsequent placement of a cap. No
estimates were given for the amount of oil gushing from the well
after the cut. Nor are there estimates since a cap was put on the
pipe, which already has collected more than 3 million gallons.
The increased estimates presents a larger danger to the animals
who live the Gulf's coastal marshes, said John Andrew Nyman, a
wetlands ecologist at Louisiana State University. The brown pelican
population was believed to be near its healthy capacity before the
spill, but with the spill affecting a larger area, the increase in
pelican deaths could seriously impact the bird's recent recovery,
he said.
Also of particular concern were tuna, billfish such as marlin,
sailfish and swordfish, which tend to spawn in the region of the
Gulf affected by the spill, said Jim Franks, a fisheries biologist
at the University of Southern Mississippi Gulf Coast Research
Laboratory.
"We are now into spawning season. The location and magnitude of
the spill, the young life stages of these fish, the larval forms,
are in a precarious situation," Franks said.
The oil flow estimates are not nearly complete and different
teams have come up with different numbers. A new team from the
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute came in with even higher
estimates, ranging from 1 million gallons a day to 2.1 million
gallons. If the high end is true, that means nearly 107 million
gallons have spilled since April 20.
The Obama administration's point man for the Gulf Coast oil
spill acknowledged Friday that reliable numbers are hard to get.
"I think we're still dealing with the flow estimate. We're
still trying to refine those numbers," said Coast Guard Adm. Thad
Allen said.
But even using other numbers that federal officials and
scientists call a more reasonable range would have about 63 million
gallons spilling since the rig explosion. If that amount was put in
gallon milk jugs, they would line up for nearly 5,500 miles. That's
the distance from the spill to London, where BP is headquartered,
and then continuing on to Rome.
By comparison, the Exxon Valdez, the previous worst U.S. oil
spill, was just about 11 million gallons. The new figures mean
Deepwater Horizon is producing an Exxon Valdez size spill every
five to 13 days.
Meanwhile, oil still was washing up on Gulf beaches. But it
wasn't as bad Friday morning at Orange Beach, Ala., as it had been
earlier in the week. Waves brought in a foot-long chunk of what
appeared to be solid oil on the white sand. One side was flat and
curved, while the other was honeycombed with bubbles and a single
spot where crude oozed out. Standing near the water line, Elaine
Fox picked it up without a thought.
"I'm not dead, I'm not sick," Fox, of West Monroe, La., said
Friday. "I think a lot of this is nothing but media hype."
With all sorts of estimates for what's flowing from the BP well.
McNutt said the most credible range at the moment is between
840,000 gallons and 1.68 million gallons a day. She added that it
was "maybe a little bit more." Scientists used sonar, pressure
readings and video analysis to make the new estimates.
Previous estimates had put the range roughly between half a
million and a million gallons a day, perhaps higher. 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.
Allen said that it will be at least July before BP has the
tankers in place to capture oil spilling from the well. And if
undersea efforts to direct the oil to the surface succeed, it will
take weeks to get the proper equipment in place to hold it, he
said.
A day earlier, the White House released a letter from Allen
inviting BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg and "any appropriate
officials from BP" to meet Wednesday with senior administration
officials. Allen said Obama, who has yet to speak with any BP
official since the explosion, would participate in a portion of the
meeting.

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