Energy | Water | Ecotrope

Gulf ecosystem, meet oil spill 'echo chamber'

Ecotrope | Aug. 3, 2010 9:51 a.m. | Updated: Feb. 19, 2013 1:48 p.m.

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Courtesy of Carla Cole

A new milestone for the BP oil spill: The New York Times reports the 5-million-barrel spill is by far the largest of its kind. Much bigger than the record-setting 3.3-million-barrel Ixtoc spill in Mexico’s Bay of Campeche in 1979.

Of the 5 million barrels spilled in the gulf, only 800,00 have been captured by response efforts.

The other 4.2 million barrels … well, they’ve made a thud in the ecosystem that will echo for a lifetime, according to Florida State University oceanography professor Ian R. MacDonald.

“We’ve never had a spill of this magnitude in the deep ocean,” MacDonald said. “These things reverberate through the ecosystem. It is an ecological echo chamber, and I think we’ll be hearing the echoes of this, ecologically, for the rest of my life.”

Scientists and engineers firmed up their calculations of the oil spill flow rate to reach the 5 million barrel total; they also estimate the flow rate slowed over time as the well feeding the gusher was drained.

As the BP disaster has unfolded, estimates of the oil spill flow rate have stretched from nothing to 1,000 barrels a day, to 5,000, to between 12,000 to 19,000 and then to betwen 35,000 and 60,000 barrels. On Monday, a new team of analysts concluded it was 62,000 at the start of the spill and 53,000 just before the well was capped.

Turns out, it was the new cap that made the difference. It allowed experts to gauge the pressure in the well and compare it with pressure estimates before the spill. That gave them a much clearer picture of the flow rate over time than the remote-controlled vehicles, reservoir modeling and oil collected by surface ships.

Every time the flow-rate figures go up, they drive up BP’s penalties under the Clean Water Act.

But they don’t add nearly as much cost as a finding of gross negligence, which triples the $1,100 penalty per barrel.

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