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BP Oil Spill Emails Reveal High-Level Discord Over Flow Estimates

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Ships work near the site of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill on August 3, 2010, in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana.
Ships work near the site of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill on August 3, 2010, in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana.

A BP engineering executive warned senior BP management early on in the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill that internal models did not support estimates of the size of the undersea leak being provided to government officials and the public, according to company emails.

On May 15, 2010, Mike Mason, a vice president in BP's exploration and production technology division, wrote to Andy Inglis, chief executive of global exploration and production, warning him that the company's "data and knowledge" did not support the 5,000 barrel per day figure touted by executives as their best estimate of the size of the leak.

"We should be very cautious standing behind a 5,000 [barrel per day] figure as our modeling shows that this well could be making anything up to 100,000 [barrels per day]," Mason wrote in one of the emails, obtained by The Huffington Post.

The next day, Jack Lynch, BP's general counsel in the U.S., forwarded Mason's message to two BP executives leading the company's oil spill response: Doug Suttles, chief operating officer for BP's global exploration and production business, and David Rainey, a former BP vice president in charge of exploration in the Gulf of Mexico.

The emails suggest an internal struggle at the highest levels of BP over the issue of the well's flow rate, which became intensely controversial during the course of the spill. At the outset of the disaster, BP estimated the flow at just 1,000 barrels per day. By the end of the three-month spill, a government-led scientific team estimated that the well released an average of more than 50,000 barrels per day.

"It sounds to me like someone who's conscious that the email might not be private, but writes it anyway because he know the risks of being silent," said Jamison Colburn, an environmental law professor at Penn State University and former enforcement litigator for the Environmental Protection Agency. "It implies the existence of a lot more internal communication on this subject."

Scott Dean, a BP spokesman, declined to comment on the emails, and Mason did not respond to several voice mail messages. An attempt to reach Rainey, who now works for BHP Billiton's petroleum exploration division in Houston, was unsuccessful. An attorney for Suttles did not respond to a request for comment.

BP's handling of the flow rate estimates has emerged as a major focus of the Justice Department's two-year criminal investigation into the spill, according to legal experts and attorneys involved with litigation over the disaster. The first and only criminal charges yet to be filed over the spill were brought this April against Kurt Mix, a BP engineer, for allegedly destroying text messages and emails discussing far higher flow estimates than BP revealed publicly at the time. Mix pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Internal emails and organization charts obtained by The Huffington Post show that Rainey, the former BP vice president, took part in the early development of the company's flow rate estimates and reported directly to Suttles, who led the company's response.

Both Rainey and Dave Nagel, executive vice president of BP America, the company's U.S. subsidiary, are being probed by the Justice Department for potentially lying to Congress about the leak estimates, according to a report by the Wall Street Journal this week.

Rainey and Nagel discussed the spill in a May 4, 2010, closed-door briefing with the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and told lawmakers that BP stood by a 5,000 barrel per day estimate for the size of the leak, according to a congressional staffer who attended the briefing.

"They were sticking with 5,000 barrels a day," said the staffer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the briefing was not open to the press.

The two executives also said that in a worst-case scenario, the size of the leak could rise to as much as 60,000 barrels per day, but that was only a possibility if the condition of the well deteriorated significantly, the staffer said.

Lying to Congress is a felony punishable by up to five years in prison.

 
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