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Kevin Grandia Headshot

Plume Watch 2010 - We Know You Know BP

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With "Operation Top Kill" now approved and ready to start, millions of eyes will be on the live "spill cam" hoping to catch the moment when the source of this environmental and economic disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is finally turned off.

But there's a catch (or a rub if you prefer): the moment that plume stops flowing out the end of that pipe, the estimation of how much oil BP is responsible for cleaning up gets a whole lot murkier.

The push for a live spill cam was not simply a voyeuristic need to see the oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico live and unfiltered. The idea was to ensure that outside experts had the information they need to measure the scope of the problem and thereby determine how much BP is on the hook for cleaning up.

If the estimate of the daily flow of oil is too low, then the American taxpayer will end up footing the bill for more of the clean-up costs down the road after BP has absolved itself of responsibility. If the estimate is too high, then BP will end up forking over more money than it needs to - a situation that I'm sure won't find much sympathy with the public.

This tug-of-war over the estimated daily flow has been playing since the first day oil started pumping into the oil more than a month ago. BP claims that there is about 5,000 barrels a day spilling into the Gulf, while outside experts saying that this number is impossibly low and that the daily flow could be as high as a whopping 95,000 barrel a day.

Lawmakers in Washington have been demanding that BP release the data necessary to make an accurate third-party assessment, but so far there has been no final "official" estimation nailed down and the 5,000 barrels estimate remains the number being quoted by media.

Here's Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) pushing Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar on the daily flow estimates in a Natural Resources Committee hearing today. While Salazar says that his experts do have the numbers, but you will notice he does not actually provide a solid number:

We know BP knows exactly the amount of oil pumping out of that pipe everyday because they cannot perform "Operation Top Kill" unless they know the exact amount of oil coming out of the pipe.

Operation Top Kill is a plan to pump a mud-like substance into the broken oil pipe to try and push the oil back down into the the well and cap it. If they push too much mud too fast the pressure could be too great and create further fractures in the well that could potentially make the oil leak larger. Of course, if the pressure is too little, then nothing at all will happen and the oil will continue to pump into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

So BP knows the amount of oil they are pumping into the Gulf and we know it's not 5,000 barrels if we listen to third-party experts. And we know that the higher the number, the higher the clean up costs and liabilities for BP will be.

Millions of people around the world are hoping and praying that BP is successful with their Top Kill operation and so am I. When the plume stops, the mess in the Gulf can begin to be dealt with, but at the same the numbers game will get a whole lot messier and the chance that taxpayers will be screwed goes way up.

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