Obama looks to ‘kick ass’ as BP’s spill containment efforts continue amid unclearness of spill’s flow rate

Publish date: June 7, 2010

Written by: Charles Digges

NEW YORK – Defending his administrations response to the Deepwater Horizon crisis in the Gulf of Mexico, President Barack obama told NBC’s Today show Tuesday morning that his long consultations with experts constituted a search for “whose ass to kick.”

Meanwhile, scientists continue to grapple with what theflow rate from the ruptured well at the site of the Deepwater Horizon disaster that killed 11actually is – a figure that remains basically unknown even 49 days into the spill.

Breaking with his usual steadily spoken demenor, Obama resorted to such language as frustration mounts day by day as Americans tune in online to the oil spill response site to watch live feeds of oil gushing from the floor of the gulf.

His administration, despite three visits, most recently Friday, to the to the Gulf, and a constant presence of administration officials in the area, has been accused of being distant from concerns of the regions embattles citizens. Obama hopes to beef up his efforts to reflect the frustration of Gulf residents – whose livelihoods have ground to a standstill with no sigh of return – and the nation at large.

During a press briefing at the White House yesterday, Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, the federal point man on spill containment and cleanup, admitted that officials don’t have a firm grasp on what the flow rate from the ruptured well is, even though BP is collecting a reported 11,100 barrels of oil a day via a new cap, siphon and dome procedure put in place late Friday night. On Tuesday, BP announced a  higher figure, saying the company had contained 14,800 barrels of oil over the last 24 yours.

BP has asserted that this eighth effort out of seven previously failed ones is catching at least half the oil, as the federal estimate is that the well is belching at least 12,000 to 19,000 barrels a day. But there is no real consensus among experts on how much oil is pouring from the wellhead, and it is difficult if not impossible to assess the success of BP’s containments efforts.

In fact, several telephone calls to BP have revealed the company has stopped trying to calculate a flow rate on its own, referring all questions on the subject to the government. The company’s liability will ultimately be determined in part by how many barrels of oil are spilled.

The success of the containment device has cast new doubts on the official estimates of the flow rate, developed by a government-appointed team called the Flow Rate Technical Group, an offshoot of the US Geologial survey that initially confirmed higher flow rates.
Before the riser pipe was cut, the group made estimates by several methods, including an analysis of video footage, and the overlap of those estimates produced the range of 12,000 to 19,000 barrels a day that the team reported on May 27th. That was two to four times as high as the government’s previous estimate of 5,000 barrels a day, a number that had been widely ridiculed by scientists and advocacy groups.

Yet the scientists who produced that new range emphasized its uncertainty when they presented it. In fact, a subgroup that analyzed the plume emerging at the wellhead could offer no upper bound for its flow estimate, and presented only a rough idea of the lower bound, which it pegged at 12,000 to 25,000 barrels a day.

Coast Guard’s Allen says flow rate ‘is what it is’

The immense undersea gusher of oil and gas, seen on live video feed, looks as big as it did last week, or bigger, before the company sliced through the pipe known as a riser to install its new collection device.

At least one expert, Ira Leifer, who is part of a government team charged with estimating the flow rate, is convinced that the operation has made the leak worse, perhaps far worse than the 20 percent – or 100,000 gallon per day – increase that government officials warned might occur when the riser was cut.

Dr. Leifer, of the University of California, Santa Barbara, told the New York Times that judging from the video, cutting the pipe might have led to a several-fold increase in the flow rate from the well.

“The well pipe clearly is fluxing way more than it did before,” said Dr. Leifer as quoted by the paper.

“By way more, I don’t mean 20 percent, I mean multiple factors,” he said.

During Monday’s White House press briefing before meeting with the administration, Adm. Allen, in televised remarks Monday, said of the flow rate: “That is the big unknown that we’re trying to hone in and get the exact numbers on, and we’ll make those numbers known as we get them. We’re not trying to low-ball it or high-ball it. It is what it is.”

Speaking at a briefing from BP’s American headquarters in Houston on Monday, Kent Wells, a BP executive involved in the containment effort, declined to estimate the total flow and how much it might have increased. He said that video images from the wellhead showed a “curtain of oil” leaking from under the cap.

“How much that is, we’d all love to know,” Wells said. “It’s really difficult to tell.”

He said that more than 27,000 barrels of oil had been collected, and that engineers were working to optimize the collection rate. Wells reiterated to reporters that a second collection system, involving hoses at the wellhead, would be implemented “by the middle of June.” That oil would be collected by another rig with the ability to handle at least 5,000 barrels a day.

Obama lays claim to early involvement in spill containment

“I was down there a month ago, before most of these talking heads were even paying attention to the Gulf,” Obama told the “Today” show Tuesday morning. “A month ago I was meeting with fishermen down there, standing in the rain talking about what a potential crisis this could be.”

Numerous critics have accused Obama of being too cerebral in his reaction to the undersea gusher now fouling the Gulf of Mexico, of failing to put the full force of the administration and of putting too much trust in oil company BP. But Obama told NBC his deliberations have been more than academic.

“I don’t sit around talking to experts because this is a college seminar,” Obama continued. “We talk to these folks because they potentially have the best answers, so I know whose ass to kick.”

The Deepwater Horzion rig exploded on April 20th, and sank April 22nd, opening the Pandora’s box of oil that has been spewing volcano-like into Gulf waters ever since. Obama’s first visit to the region closest to the deep-sea spill, Venice, Louisiana, was on May 2nd.

By then, however, Republican spin-doctors, many of whom had defended Bush’s laggard and grossly insufficient response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, had dubbed the spill “Obama’s Katrina.”

Ironically, this was a tacit acknowledgment years later by Bush’s right wing proponents that the former President’s reaction to Katrina was tardy, sloppy and, especially in the case of New Orleans’ predominantly African-American population, racist.