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Flow Rate Group Preliminary Best Estimate Puts Oil Flow from Deepwater BP Well Between 12,000 and 19,000 Barrels per Day; Obama Administration Extends Suspension of Offshore Drilling

Based on three separate methodologies (described below), the independent analysis of the Federal Flow Rate Technical Group analyzing the flow from BP’s gushing undersea well has determined that the overall best initial estimate for the lower and upper boundaries of flow rates of oil is in the range of 12,000 and 19,000 barrels per day. Up until now, BP and the National Incident Command had been publicly using an estimate of 5,000 barrels per day.

At the FRTG rates, the BP well could have dumped between approximately 18 million gallons (US) and 39 million gallons into the Gulf so far. As a comparison, the Exxon Valdez accident spilled almost 11 million gallons. The PEMEX IXTOC I subsea blowout in 1979—the second largest oil spill on the records—resulted in a subsea flow of 10,000 to 30,000 barrels per day. By the time that well was brought under control almost a year later, an estimated 140 million gallons of oil had spilled into Bahia de Campeche. (Earlier post.)

In making the announcement, USGS Director Dr. Marcia McNutt, who is the chair of the FRTG, established by Admiral Thad Allen, the National Incident Commander, emphasized that since day one, the Administration’s deployments of resources and tactics in response to the BP oil spill have been based on a worst-case, catastrophic scenario, and have not been contained by flow rate estimates.

President Obama Actions on Offshore Drilling
In remarks this morning on the Gulf spill, President Obama said that the Administration will put into place aggressive new operating standards and requirements for offshore drilling companies, based on the completion of a just concluded 30-day safety and environmental review.
Further, Obama said, the Administration will
  1. Suspend the planned exploration of two locations off the coast of Alaska;
  2. Cancel the pending lease sale in the Gulf of Mexico and the proposed lease sale off the coast of Virginia;
  3. Continue the existing moratorium and suspend the issuance of new permits to drill new deepwater wells for six months; and
  4. Suspend action on 33 deepwater exploratory wells currently being drilled in the Gulf of Mexico.
In addition, last week, the president signed an executive order establishing the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling. The purpose of this commission is to consider both the root causes of the disaster and offer options on what safety and environmental precautions are necessary.
More than anything else, this economic and environmental tragedy—and it’s a tragedy—underscores the urgent need for this nation to develop clean, renewable sources of energy. Doing so will not only reduce threats to our environment, it will create a new, homegrown, American industry that can lead to countless new businesses and new jobs.
We’ve talked about doing this for decades, and we’ve made significant strides over the last year when it comes to investing in renewable energy and energy efficiency. The House of Representatives has already passed a bill that would finally jumpstart a permanent transition to a clean energy economy, and there is currently a plan in the Senate...that would achieve the same goal.
If nothing else, this disaster should serve as a wake-up call that it’s time to move forward on this legislation. It’s time to accelerate the competition with countries like China, who have already realized the future lies in renewable energy. And it’s time to seize that future ourselves. So I call on Democrats and Republicans in Congress, working with my administration, to answer this challenge once and for all.

—President Obama

The FRTG used three separate methodologies to calculate their initial estimate, which they deemed the most scientifically-sound approach, because measurement of the flow of oil is extremely challenging, given the environment, unique nature of the flow, limited visibility, and lack of human access to BP’s leaking oil well.

Mass Balance Team. The first approach led by the Mass Balance Team analyzed how much oil is on the surface of the Gulf of Mexico. The Mass Balance team developed a range of values using USGS and NOAA analysis of data that was collected from NASA’s Airborne Visible InfraRed Imaging Spectrometer (AVIRIS), an advanced imaging tool. USGS has previously used the AVIRIS tool to discover water on the moon. This is the first time it has been used to measure the volume of an oil spill.

Based on observations on 17 May, and accounting for thin oil not sensed by the AVIRIS sensor, the FRTG estimated that between 130,000 and 270,000 barrels of oil (5.46 million to 11.3 million gallons US) are on the surface of the Gulf of Mexico. It is important to note that the FRTG also estimated that a similar volume of oil to the amount AVIRIS found on the surface has already been burned, skimmed or dispersed by responders or has evaporated naturally as of 17 May.

Given the amount of oil observed and the adjusted calculations for the amount of oil that has been burned, skimmed, dispersed, or evaporated the initial estimate from the Mass Balance Team is in the range of 12,000 to 19,000 barrels of oil per day.

This methodology carried several challenges, including the fact that the AVIRIS plane can only fly over a portion of the spill in a day, meaning that an assumption must be made that the area imaged is representative of the entire spill region.

Plume Modeling Team. The second approach led by the Plume Modeling Team used video observations of the oil/gas mixture escaping from the kinks in the riser and at the end of the riser pipe alongside advanced image analysis to estimate fluid velocity and flow volume. Based on advanced image analysis and video observations the Plume Modeling Team has provided an initial range estimate of 12,000 to 25,000 barrels of oil per day.

This team faced several methodological challenges, including having a limited window of data in time to choose from, getting good lighting and unobstructed views of the end of the riser, and estimating how much of that flow is oil, gas, hydrates, and water.

Riser Insertion Tube Tool Estimate. Both estimates from the Mass Balance Team and the Plume Modeling Team were reality-checked with a basic calculation of the lower limit of possible oil that is spilling. The lower limit was calculated based on the amount of oil collected by the Riser Insertion Tube Tool (RITT), plus the estimate of how much oil is escaping the RITT, and how much oil is leaking from the kink in the riser.

On 25 May 2010, at approximately 17:30 CDT, the RITT logged oil collection at a rate of 8,000 barrels of oil per day, as measured by a meter whose calibration was verified by a third-party. Based on observations of the riser, the team estimated that at least 10% of the flow was not being captured by the riser at the time oil collection was logged, increasing the estimate of total flow to 8,800 barrels of oil per day. Factoring in the flow from the kink in the riser, the RITT Team calculated that the lower bound estimate of the total oil flow is at least 11,000 barrels of oil per day, depending on whether the flow through the kink is primarily gas or oil.

The lower bound estimate calculated by the RITT Team is more than twice the amount of the earlier flux estimate of 5,000 barrels of oil per day and is independent of any calculations or model assumptions made by either team above.

On-going Calculations. The preliminary estimates provided by the FRTG are based on new methodologies being employed to understand a highly dynamic and complex situation, the FRTG said. As the FRTG collects more data and improves their scientific modeling in the coming days and weeks ahead, they will continue to refine and update their range of oil flow rate estimates, as appropriate.

The FRTG is working diligently to ensure all estimates are peer reviewed by independent experts and academics as expeditiously as possible. They will also establish a website to ensure this information is available and reported to the public in a timely fashion.

Background. The Flow Rate Technical Group comprises federal scientists, independent experts, and representatives from universities around the country. It includes representatives from USGS, NOAA, DOE, Coast Guard, MMS, the national labs, National Institute of Standards and Technology, UC Berkeley, University of Washington, University of Texas, Purdue University, and several other academic institutions. BP is not involved in the FRTG except to supply raw data for the scientists and experts to analyze.

FRTG Members from the Federal Government appointed to date include: Marcia McNutt, Director, USGS; William Rees, Jr., Los Alamos National Lab, Department of Energy; Darren Mollot, Department of Energy; Franklin Shaffer, Department of Energy; Victor Labson, USGS; Bill Lehr, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; Austin Gould, US Coast Guard; Richard Brannon, US Coast Guard; Don Maclay, Minerals Management Service (MMS); Gerald Crawford, MMS; David Absher, MMS; and Bill Courtwright, MMS.

FRTG Members from academia and independent organizations appointed to date include: Omar Savas, Professor of Mechanical Engineering, University of California Berkeley; James Riley, Professor of Mechanical Engineering, University of Washington; Juan Lasheras, Prof. of Engineering and Applied Sciences, University of California San Diego; Poojitha Yapa, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Clarkson University; Paul Boomer, Senior Lecturer, Petroleum and Geosystems, University of Texas at Austin; Steve Wereley, Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Purdue University; Peter Cornillon, Professor of Oceanography, University of Rhode Island; Ira Leifer, Assoc. Researcher, Marine Science Institute, University of California Santa Barbara; Alberto Aliseda, Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering, University of Washington Pedro Espina, National Institute of Standards and Technology.



Big oil are not known to tell the whole truth. Must keeps the users guessing.


Obama Administration not known to tell the truth either. So we're in deep trouble! What's ridiculous is that oil is washing up on shore into Louisiana wetlands now, and no one is there to stop it. The Administration has a


blank check to stop the mess....they've had a blank check to stop the mess from day one. So why hasn't the Obama Administration been pushing all resources possible to the coast to stop the damage? They can essentially put all the costs on a big tab and give it BP at the end. We have 10 percent plus unemployment and a blank check to protect the coast ---- what part of this do they not understand? Hire all kinds of temp workers outfitted with haz-mat gear & copious amounts of bottled water for the heat. Bring in clean up equipment from around the world. This botched response is a clossal blunder of the Obama Administration.

Henry Gibson

There is only one known large scale cost effective clean sustainable energy source: Uranium and thorium fission. Anybody who proposes anything else does not even know to use simple arithmetic. The actions of the government to stop drilling and leasing is only a reaction to false fears and lobbiests for "Clean" energy that does not exist for the current industrialized world. Africa and Russia are greatly polluted with oil spills about which no massive campaign to stop buying oil is mounted. A tax on imported oil of $40 will allow money for and profitable operation of coal to liquid factories in the US that will not have millions of barrels to spill. The US should start building them now by the hundreds with a massive construction project. The US can do nothing to prevent the increase of CO2 in a large way and maintain a semblence of its economy. A minimum of 20 CANDU nuclear reactors should be ordered and installed on the nations coast for cooling water or along the US owned property along the Columbia river. Then coal can be diverted to liquid fuels. Renewable energy is just the contiuation of a hundred year old pretense that was revived to cost the people of the US their houses whilst Bush was ensuring massive oil profits for his family by allowing rampant speculation in all financial markets especially oil. ..HG..


Finally I think many people are starting to see how the Obama Administration is running the country right into the ground...some people saw it coming from this Chicago politician - hopefully he'll be a ONE TERM PRESIDENT.


"Finally I think many people are starting to see how the Obama Administration is running the country right into the ground"

Are we talking about the same people who thought the Bush Administration was doing such a wonderful job he deserved a second term?


No President can change the direction of the economy over night. Our oil and junk food addiction runs very deep. It will take two or three decades to pull out of it regardless who is President. Countries with different political structures and less lobbies and addictions will do it faster.


We can put satellites into space, build nuclear powered aircraft carriers, and make scram jets that go mach 6, but we can't stop this? Sad.



Why don't they pump a whole bunch of steel ball bearings of different sizes into the blowout preventer - small enough to make through the BOP but large enough to block the punctures in the riser? Why does this have to be so complicated? GRRRRRR.

Roger Pham

Yeah, why is it so hard to put the cork back on the bottle? They have drills long enough to reach 1 mile below the water and much below. Why not put a cork on the tip of that drill and guide it through the leak?


You know that there must be frustration when just about everyone on the street comes up with their own potential solution :)


Maybe they're already using bearings as the other materials in the "junk shot"....

"In an operation known as a “junk shot,” BP engineers poured pieces of rubber, golf balls and other materials into the crippled blowout preventer, trying to clog the device that sits atop the wellhead. The maneuver was designed to work in conjunction with the continuing “top kill” operation, in which heavy drilling liquids are pumped into the well to counteract the pressure of the gushing oil."



The U.S. requires 1000 wells the size of the Horizon just to supply the oil for our consumption every day. We get 10% of our oil from the Gulf of Mexico and there are almost 100 drilling rigs out there right now, some producing multiple wells. We use a LOT of oil and that is where we should look first.


There's a reason a junk shot uses pieces of rubber, golf balls and other light materials into the blowout preventer, they are trying to clog the leaks in device that sits atop the wellhead. The reason they don't pump a whole bunch of steel ball bearings of different sizes into the blowout preventer is that these are too heavy for that and would just sink to the bottom of the borehole; which is the heavy drilling liquid's job.

BTW I just heard that 90% of the fines issued by the US for oil operation safety violations went to BP, and not once did anybody think to shut them down. Why? Because American's need cheap gas to drive big cars. Don't blame the government for this, blame yourselves.


I am sick to my stomach over this whole mess. I hope congress will act meaningfully in the wake of it...but I really doubt they will. There should be new incentives for biofuels, improving the America's electrical grid, and incentives for battery research to speed the transition to BEV's. The US needs to attack the foreign oil problem like it did with NASA putting men on the moon.


Yes, there's a lot Congress could do but that would cost money and take control out of the hands of the people, and politicians are less willing to do that now that the American voters are putting Tea Party candidates in office; http://politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com/2010/05/21/paul-says-obama-being-too-tough-on-bp/?fbid=zAEwJOqYQxc


Well said ai_win: The very same people who wanted cheap oil + drill baby drill + less or no safety regulations are surprisingly the one to complain against the time required to fix the leaks.

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