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Scientists double Gulf oil spill estimate

June 11, 2010 12:00:00 AM PDT
The news from the Gulf of Mexico seems to be only getting worse, as new estimates for the amount of oil spilling out of the ruptured well may be twice as much as previously thought, making its impact on the area's fragile environment even more dire.Scientists now say the blown-out well could have been spewing as much as 2 million gallons of crude before a cut-and-cap maneuver started capturing some of the flow, meaning more than 100 million gallons may have leaked into the Gulf since the start of the disaster in April. That is more than nine times the size of the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster, previously the worst oil spill in U.S. history.

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.

The larger estimates, while still preliminary and considered a worst-case scenario, could contribute to breathtaking liabilities against BP. Penalties can be levied against the company under a variety of environmental protection laws, including fines of up to $1,100 under the Clean Water Act for each barrel of oil spilled.

Based on the maximum amount of oil possibly spilled to date, that would translate to a potential civil fine for simple discharge alone of $2.8 billion. If BP were found to have committed gross negligence or willful misconduct, the civil fine could be up to $4,300 per barrel, or up to $11.1 billion.

The White House says it's expecting BP's chairman, Carl-Henric Svanberg, to attend a meeting with President Barack Obama and other officials next Wednesday.

Latest developments:

  • BP shares moved higher for a second straight day Friday as investors apparently dismissed new estimates that the oil spill could be far worse than previously thought and reports the company may defer its second-quarter dividend. BP shares rose $1.19, or 3.6 percent, to close at $33.97 in New York. The shares climbed as high as $34.46 during the session.
  • If the higher-end estimates prove accurate, the leak amounts to an Exxon Valdez every five days or so. At that rate, in just over three weeks from now it will eclipse the worst oil spill in peacetime history, the 1979 Ixtoc disaster in Mexico, which took 10 months to belch out 140 million gallons of oil into the Gulf.
  • Researchers said the increased estimates present a larger danger to the animals who live the Gulf's coastal marshes. 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. Also of particular concern were tuna, billfish such as marlin, sailfish and swordfish, which tend to spawn in the region.
  • 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.
  • Oil is still 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.
  • 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.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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