By SETH BORENSTEIN and HARRY R. WEBER, Associated Press Writers Seth Borenstein And Harry R. Weber, Associated Press Writers
HOUSTON – Researchers studying the flow of oil from the blown-out well at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico said Thursday that up to twice the amount of oil previously thought may have been spewing into the sea since an oil rig exploded nearly two months ago.
The new figures could mean anywhere from 42 million to more than 100 million gallons of oil have already fouled the fragile waters, affecting people who live, work and play along the coast from Louisiana to Florida — and perhaps beyond.
It is the third — and perhaps not last — time the federal government has had to increase its estimate of how much oil is gushing. Trying to clarify what has been a contentious and confusing issue, federal officials on Thursday gave a wide variety of estimates.
All of the new spill rate estimates are worse than earlier ones â€” 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 Thursday's estimates had more oil flowing in an hour than what officials once said was spilling in an entire day.
The spill — before June 3 when a riser was cut and then a cap put on it — was flowing at daily rate that could possibly have been as high as 2.1 million gallons, twice the highest number the federal government had been saying, according to U.S. Geological Survey Director Marcia McNutt, who is coordinating estimates. But she said possibly more credible numbers are a bit lower.
The estimates are not near complete yet and different scientific teams have come up with different numbers. A new team from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute came in with higher estimates than all the others using multibeam sonar.
The Woods Hole estimate ranged from 1 million gallons a day to 2.1 million gallons. And if the high end of the Woods Hole estimate is true, that means nearly 107 million gallons have spilled since the rig explosion.
Even using other numbers that federal officials and scientists call a more reasonable range would have about 63 million gallons spilling since April 20.
If those 63 million gallons of oil were put in gallon milk jugs, they would line up side by side 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, Exxon Valdez, the previous worst U.S. oil spill, was just about 11 million gallons. The worst peacetime oil spill, 1979's Ixtoc 1 in Mexico, was about 140 million gallons over 10 months. The new figures mean Deepwater Horizon is producing an Exxon Valdez size spill every five to 13 days.
With all sorts of estimates for what's flowing from the BP well, some even smaller than the amount collected by BP in its containment cap, McNutt in a telephone press conference said the most credible range at the moment is between 840,000 gallons and 1.68 million gallons a day. Then she added that it was "maybe a little bit more."
No estimates were given for the amount of oil gushing from the well after the June 3 riser cut, which BP said would increase the flow by about 20 percent. Nor are there estimates since a cap was put on the pipe, which already has collected more than 3 million gallons.
After the news conference, the Department of Interior said in a press release that the scientists who based their calculations on video say the best estimate for oil flow before the riser was cut was between 1.05 million gallons a day and 1.26 million gallons a day. That release mentioned only a cubic meter per second rate from Woods Hole, not a rate that translated into actual amounts.
The 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.
One member of the teams analyzing the flow, University of Washington at Seattle assistant professor of mechanical engineering Alberto Aliseda, said he understands why the public may be perplexed with all the different numbers and the diverging methodologies.
"From my point of view, this is a very difficult problem scientifically," Aliseda said. "In the long run, it is beneficial to use all of these approaches. But in the short term, it definitely produces a variety of numbers. It is difficult to use them, and it is difficult to convey them to the public in a coherent manner."
McNutt said, "Our scientific analysis is still a work in progress."
When the dust and oil clears, BP could be looking at total costs and liabilities in the billions, perhaps tens of billions of dollars, according to analysts and observers. BP doesn't have an unlimited checkbook, but as a cash rich oil company, it does have lots of resources to handle the burden. Analysts estimate BP could be able to raise $15 billion and still keep debt levels within company expectations.
As of Thursday, the cost of the response to date amounted to roughly $1.43 billion, according to a BP regulatory filing.
But that figure is likely to be a drop in the bucket compared to what BP ultimately has to shell out to make everyone whole.
"This is a nightmare that keeps getting worse every week," said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club. "We're finding out more and more information about the extent of the damage. ... Clearly we can't trust BP's estimates of how much oil is coming out."
Associated Press Writer Tamara Lush contributed to this report from New Orleans. Weber reported from Houston, Borenstein from Washington.