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Gulf oil spill: Oil spill rate could be double previous estimate, government says

June 10, 2010 |  3:10 pm
Government scientists Thursday said as many as 40,000 barrels of oil have been flowing daily from the blown-out BP well in the Gulf of Mexico, doubling earlier estimates and greatly expanding the scope of what is already the largest spill in U.S. history.

The new figures could mean 42 million to 84 million gallons of oil have leaked into the gulf since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on the night of April 20.

The flow estimates were released by Marcia McNutt, director of the U.S. Geological Survey and do not count any increases that may have occurred since the cutting of the well’s riser pipe, a step that was expected to boost the flow.

Teams using a variety of technologies are trying to calculate how much the riser cut has increased the well release, but they will not have that information for several more days. ”It’s a challenging scientific issue,” McNutt said.

The new flow numbers are the latest in a series of estimates that have steadily grown as scientists analyzed live video feeds. The earliest figure, 1,000 barrels, was supplanted by 5,000 barrels. A government-appointed scientific team then pegged the flow at 12,000 to 19,000 barrels and possibly as high as 25,000 barrels per day.

Members of that team now say the flow could range from 20,000 to 40,000 barrels a day, and possibly up to 50,000 barrels. There are 42 gallons in a barrel of oil.

“Most of the experts have concluded that, given the limited data available and the small amount of time to process that data, the best estimate for the average flow rate for the leakage…is between 25,000 to 30,000 barrels per day, but could be as low as 20,000 barrels per day or as high as 40,000 barrels per day,” McNutt said in a release.

That would mean the gulf oil spill has outstripped the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill by at least four times.

--Bettina Boxall