Gulf Disaster: Already More Than 100 Million Gallons?

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis, the election, and more, subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter.


It wasn’t so long ago the notion of 25,000 barrels of oil spewing from the Gulf well each day was a worst-case estimate, compared to the 12,000 to 19,000 figure that the government had deemed reasonable. On Thursday, the government announced that it believes the spill is likely between 20,000 and 40,000. One group’s figures, though, put it as high as 50,000 barrels per day. That highest estimate means that as many as 2.1 million gallons of oil could be gushing into the Gulf every day.

Thursday is the 52nd day since the disaster started. If you take the upper estimate, that would mean 109.2 million gallons of oil have spilled into the Gulf—already roughly 10 times more than the Exxon Valdez spill. Even if you used the lower bound, 54 million gallons have poured out—almost five times more than Exxon Valdez.

And it gets worse. These figures are from before the riser leading from the well was cut to put in place the cap that is now funneling a portion of the oil to the surface. Cutting the riser may have increased the flow by 20 percent. The company reports that it’s siphoning 15,000 barrels per day using the cap, but much of the total flow it’s catching.

In a call with reporters, Marcia McNutt, director of the US Geological Survey and head of the flow rate team, chose her words carefully, stating that they believe the “credible” estimate now is somewhere between 20,000 and 40,000 barrels. But McNutt added a qualifier, saying that the higher-end estimate was “somewhere around there, maybe a little bit more.” The last time the government rolled out a new estimate, it was criticized for underestimating the size.

The latest report pulls together estimates from three separate teams. An additional team, headed by Energy Secretary Steven Chu, has yet to release figures. The highest estimate is drawn from the work of team of experts lead by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and researchers from Johns Hopkins University, the University of Georgia and MIT, which used acoustic technologies to measure flow rates.

Peppered with questions from reporters about why the range remains so large, McNutt acknowledged that before this disaster, not a lot of attention had been paid to this area of research. Evaluating this spill will help improve their methods, she said.  “We will be able to do a much better job next time.”

I’m kind of hoping we don’t have a “next time.” But maybe that’s just me.

DOES IT FEEL LIKE POLITICS IS AT A BREAKING POINT?

Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest