Why BP Withholds Crucial Video of Oil Leak and Lowballs Estimates

Stephen Smith | May 28, 2010 | Energy Policy, Offshore Drilling

It took BP one month, miles of devastated coastline and communities, hundreds of dead wildlife, repeated requests from NOAA, Senators Bill Nelson (FL) and Barbara Boxer (CA) and finally a demand from Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.)

 to hand-over high-quality video of the oil gushing out of the Gulf of Mexico. Thanks to the demands of Senators Nelson and Boxer and Congressman Markey, the nation can finally see live feed from the source of the spill.  Prior to pressure from the Senators and Congressman, BP had been unwilling to provide the video needed for proper scientific analysis to determine how much oil is actually spewing out into the ocean.

“This may be BP’s footage, but it’s America’s ocean. Now anyone will be able to see the real-time effects the BP spill is having on our ocean,” said Rep. Markey on May 19th during a briefing with scientists.

NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco stated yesterday that despite their repeated asks, they only received the video of “sufficient quality to make credible estimates of flow” a few days ago.

 She noted that even with the rapid peer-review process that they have in place, it will still take two weeks to release the flow estimates to the public.

Up until this point, the federal government has been unable to calculate the flow rate of the spill in any meaningful way.  When asked her opinion on why it took BP so long to provide the needed video, Administrator Lubchenco stated “I can’t answer that” and reiterated that her agency had asked for the video numerous times.

The question is why would BP hold back on such crucial information?

Spill Liability Determined by Flow Rate

On May 26th, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar testified that there would be “financial interest” in BP underestimating the flow rate of their oil leak.  Secretary Salazar said that these financial interests have to do with the company’s liability for the spill.  Under current law, companies can be penalized between $1,000 and $3,000 per barrel for a spill depending on if there is reason to believe that gross negligence was involved.

The New York Times reported on a hearing with Congressman Markey and a follow up conversation:

At a hearing of a house subcommittee, Representative Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, asked BP America’s chairman, Lamar McKay, if the company had a financial interest in maintaining the impression of a smaller leak.

Mr. McKay said that he did not know, but that it did not matter, and that BP would pay for all legitimate claims and clean up all the oil it could, no matter what the flow had been.

In a telephone interview after the hearing, Mr. Markey noted that under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, companies face fines of up to $1,000 per barrel, or up to $3,000 per barrel in the case of gross negligence. For BP, he said, the potential fine for 1,000 barrels per day over 37 days of spillage would be on the order of $37 million at $1,000 a barrel, compared with $1.5 billion in fines for the upper estimate of 14,000 barrels per day at $3,000 a barrel.

“I think they were hoping they could fix it before they would be forced to allow the world to measure it,” Mr. Markey said.

Stephen Smith
Dr. Stephen A. Smith has over 35 years of experience affecting positive change for the environment. Since 1993, Dr. Smith has led the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) as…
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