Even as BP was at one point siphoning 5,000 barrels per day of crude oil from the riser insertion tube installed last week (a figure that has declined to 1,360 bbls./day), and they are admittedly only collecting a fraction of the oil (as can be seen the live video feed of the leak), official estimates of the size of the oil still leaking remains at 5,000 barrels per day, a figure that has become highly contested over the last few weeks.
"I don't see any scenario under which their estimates are accurate," Steve Wereley, associate professor of mechanical engineering at Purdue University told the House Energy and Environment Subcommittee in a hearing last week. Werely says his model indicates a 1.2-inch hole is producing about 25,000 barrels of oil a day and that the two leaks together are spewing 70,000 to 115,000 barrels per day (3.9 million gallons a day on average).
BP chief operating officer Doug Suttles told NPR that there is really no way of knowing how much oil is leaking and denied accuracy of the larger leak estimates. "I've heard those estimates and seen them," said Suttles. "We don't think the rate is anywhere near that high."
Suttles emphasized that the method BP has used to measure the leak size already was one of mapping the extent of oil on the surface. But because of the depth of the leaks at the wellhead and broken riser, many scientists believe that the bulk of the oil is in massive subsea plumes not reaching the surface -- and therefore not an accurate way to gauge the size of the leak.
In light of the most recent data about the size of the leak, the federal government has redoubled its efforts to calculate the actual size of the leak, and federal officials won't even speculate until they have a solid number based on sound scientific evidence. The National Incident Command's Flow Rate Technical Group is:
"...designed to support the response and inform the public by providing scientifically validated information about the amount of oil flowing from BP's leaking oil well while ensuring the vital efforts to cap the leak are not impeded."
Made up of a modeling team and a peer-review team, the FRTG was convened in light of growing public and scientific doubt about the amount of oil actually leaking from the broken oil well assembly.
"FRTG reflects the federal government's clear understanding of the long-term value of determining an oil flow rate, both in regards to the continued response and long-term recovery, as well as the important role this information may play in the final investigation of the failure of the blowout preventer and the resulting spill."
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrator Dr. Jane Lubchenco emphasized that the response has been the same whether the spill is 5,000 or 55,000 barrels per day. "Our response has never been pegged to any particular estimate," said Lubchenco. "It has always been much more aggressive than the original flow rates put out there."
Lubchenco joked that Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen 'locked scientists into a room and was sliding pizzas under the door until they come out with a number.'
"I think everyone understands the importance of having a good number," said Lubchenco.
The FRTG expects to have an initial flow assessment completed by early next week. Flow rate estimates produced by the group will include the sources of data used, a description of data quality, any assumptions made, and the names of models used.