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Gulf Oil Spill: Federal Estimates Again Eclipsed By Reality

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Video from the sea floor has once again exposed as ludicrous the federal estimates of how much oil is poisoning the Gulf of Mexico. That video shows that the billowing cloud of filth from BP's broken pipe appears undiminished even as about 15,000 barrels of oil a day are being captured by a new cap, clearly indicating that the flow is several multiples of that amount.

Obama administration officials had clung to a 5,000-barrels-per-day estimate long after BP released a video clip showing oil shooting out of the pipe like a geyser. Two weeks ago, the Interior Department revised its estimate up to 12,000 to 19,000 barrels daily -- even though the scientific group it commissioned to study the matter had identified that range as the absolute lower limit of the flow. They said they could not calculate the upper limit.

BP isn't giving scientists the data they need to make more definitive estimates, and the flow appears to have increased somewhat since a twisted riser was cut off last week to provide better access to the pipe.

But judging from the new video, it seems clear that the daily flow is probably more in the neighborhood of 50,000 to 100,000 barrels -- or 2 million to 4 million gallons.

That's about one Exxon Valdez every two and a half to five days. And we're on day 50.

Julie Rodriguez, a spokeswoman for the Interior Department, said on Tuesday that the department doesn't have any new official estimates to make public yet. She noted that some increase in the numbers could be due to the riser cut. "Based on the information that we've been receiving, yeah, there is a difference between the two," she said.

U.S. Geological Survey Director Marcia McNutt, who chairs the flow group, said in a statement that its members are "working non-stop to analyze all the information that is available on the oil that is flowing from BP's well." She added: "In the next couple of days we believe we will be able to provide an updated assessment of flow rates after the riser was cut that reflects multiple methodologies and the work of a broad grouping of scientists."

BP announced Tuesday that its new cap system collected 14,800 barrels of oil on Monday, up from 11,100 barrels the day before.

But all that removed oil hasn't visibly reduced the frothing plume rising from the well.

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"Our lower bound just moved up," Ira Leifer, a flow group member and researcher at the Marine Science Institute of the University of California, Santa Barbara, told HuffPost on Tuesday.

"A realistic lower bound would be some number than you can take [15,000 barrels] out of it and it doesn't change very much," Leifer said. That means it has to be at least four or five times that much, he said.

Paul Bommer, another group member who teaches petroleum engineering at the University of Texas, told HuffPost in an email that he wasn't allowed to release individual data. But, he noted: "I think looking at the CNN live video that the oil escaping around the end of the cap is diminished somewhat. BP claims to be capturing 15,000 bbl/day now. So, I think you can draw some general conclusions from that,"

As for an upper bound, the scientists have consistently said they didn't have enough data to say for sure.

Leifer notes that BP once said that in the worst-case scenario, the leak from this well would be 100,000 barrels a day. "There could be more, there could be less," he said. But until BP produces better data that scientists can work with, Leifer announced, he'll cite that figure as a definite possibility.

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