Good News, Bad News From Recent Spill Study

Todd Shriber
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Even if you are addicted to following the oil industry and I admit I am afflicted with such a condition, there is a reasonable chance that you have not heard of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). Established in 1930 and based in Massachusetts, WHOI is a private, independent organization dedicated to marine research, engineering and higher education. Those are the organization's words, not my own.

Alright, so now that we know what WHOI is, here is the reason to care: The organization just published the results on a fascinating study on the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the largest oil spill in U.S. history. As I indicated in the headline, there is good news and bad news in the study. While already known, the bad news is still bad and much of it pertains to BP (BP). The British oil giant has been inundated with a spate of negative headlines over the past 10 days or so and the WHOI study adds to that.

It should be noted that WHOI does not directly castigate or condemn BP, Europe's second-largest oil company, in its study. However, the institute's spill study confirms the worst-case scenario, that being from the time the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on April 20, 2010 until the Macondo well was finally capped on July 15, 2010, an average of 57,000 barrels of oil spewed into the Gulf.

The bad news is that confirms Uncle Sam's estimate so gone are any hopes of a positive surprise. The bad news is the WHOI number works out to 5 million barrels of oil spilled and even with the 800,000 barrels that were recovered and never threatened the environment, a spill of 4.2 million barrels works out to be more than quadruple the daily oil output in the country of Colombia. Oh yeah, 100 million cubic feet of natural gas leaked from Macondo as well, according to WHOI.

Now for the good news, if it can be called that. It appears WHOI's flow-rate analysis technique has been legitimized and can now be considered a useful resource in estimating flow-rate and the impact a spill can have on the environment. ''By using the acoustic techniques, we were able to collect a tremendous amount of data in the limited time window that was available,'' WHOI scientist Richard Camilli said. ''We were able to see inside of the flow and make measurements of the velocities. With optical systems, you see only the outside. This was sort of like x-ray vision.''

I do not know Mr. Camilli, but Congress invited him to give testimony following the Gulf spill, so it is probably safe to say he is close to ''expert'' level in matters of oil spill science.

So there you have it. The bad news is the Gulf spill is as dire as previously believed, but at least the number of barrels spilled was counted accurately. It is a good thing that the technology exists to accurately estimate how damaging a spill is. Now if only some intrepid minds could work on technology that prevents spills of this magnitude, then we would really be making progress.

Todd Shriber