A “Slick” Numbers Game

Fixation on exact spill rate belies worrisome uncertainties

Monday night, Jon Stewart laid into coverage of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, noting the disaster had dealt “a potentially crushing blow to our nation’s describing-the-size-of-things industry.” He rolled a series of news clips that variously compared the size of the resulting slick to Maryland, Jamaica and Puerto Rico, among other not-particularly-helpful geographic entities.

The satire hit on a weakness for sloppy comparisons based on suspect estimates that has plagued coverage of the spill since the story switched from a firefighting, rescue effort to a sunken rig and a tar-balling environmental concern.

The day after the Deepwater Horizon platform sank and the search for survivors ended (eleven were killed), estimates of an oil leak ranged from nonexistent—the Coast Guard’s first guess on April 23—to a potential 336,000 gallons per day, which is what the exploratory rig was pumping before the explosion. By April 25, after further reconnaissance by remotely controlled submersibles and sonar, the Coast Guard and BP reassessed, settling on an estimate of 42,000 gallons per day.

“This is a very serious spill,” the Coast Guard’s Rear Adm. Mary Landry told the New Orleans Times-Picayune. “This has the potential to be a major spill.”

The warning drew moderate concern from media outlets, but was mitigated by the underwhelming and oft-mentioned comparison to the 1989 spill of the Exxon Valdez, which dumped eleven million gallons of oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound. With hope that the submersibles in the Gulf might succeed in shutting the failed blowout preventer at the wellhead on the ocean floor, the 42,000-gallon-per-day estimate allowed reporters to dust off their calculators and provide a back-of-the-envelope figure that would ease fears and put the leak in perspective. A New York Times story from April 26 that ran on page A11 was typical of the national media coverage, reporting that, “At the rate of 42,000 gallons of oil a day, the leak would have to continue for 262 days to match” the Valdez, the worst spill in United States history. In other words: no need to lose too much sleep over this, yet.

Although some outlets began reporting growing anxiety over the oil slick’s threat to the fragile wetlands and fisheries along the Gulf Coast, its potential economic impact, and implications for future offshore drilling, the spill did not become the story until April 28, when the Coast Guard announced that it had underestimated the leak by a factor of five, and that the well was actually gushing 210,000 gallons a day. Burned by their uncritical acceptance of the previous estimate, reporters finally started to ask how BP and the Coast Guard were coming up with these numbers.

“The leaks on the sea floor are being visually gauged from the video feed” from the remote submersibles, explained Doug Helton, a fisheries biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in an e-mail to The New York Times. “That takes a practiced eye. Like being able to look at a garden hose and judge how many gallons a minute are being discharged. The surface approach is to measure the area of the slick, the percent cover, and then estimate the thickness based on some rough color codes.”

So, gauging the rate of spill is a very inexact science. Coast Guard and BP officials have been willing to admit that, but reporters overlooked it in their hurry to report an exact figure.

The quintupling of the estimate eight days after the rig exploded changed that, and captured the full attention of the national media. With no quick solution to cutting off the leak in sight, reporters recalculated that, in fact, the disaster on the Transocean rig could very well prove to be the worst oil spill in American history, with approximately fifty-two days and counting to a new record. That is still a guesstimate, and whether or not it will stick remains to be seen. Nonetheless, reporters are in fact now asking tougher questions.

[Update - 5/5, 10:30 a.m.: The New York Times reported Wednesday that “a senior BP executive conceded Tuesday that the ruptured oil well in the Gulf of Mexico could conceivably spill as much as 60,000 barrels a day of oil, more than 10 times the estimate of the current flow.”]

Subsequent to the revised spill estimates, William Galston at The New Republic complimented The Wall Street Journal’s coverage of two important factors that may have contributed to the blowout on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig: cementing done by the contractor Halliburton just before the rig explosion, and the lack of a backup acoustic triggering device for the blowout preventer, the massive mechanism designed to cap a well in an emergency

Last Wednesday, the Knight Science Journalism Tracker highlighted belated attention paid to the failure of the supposedly fail-safe blowout preventer. The Press-Register in Mobile, Alabama, had a notable scoop on why the cleanup effort did not attempt any controlled burns of the spilled oil until April 28—despite a NOAA plan dating to 1994 that calls for an immediate response to an oil spill with fire-proof booms that can corral sections of oil for burning. The Press-Register reported that responders bought the only boom in stock from a company in Illinois, which then called its clients in other countries, asking to retrieve them. A former NOAA official told the paper that, despite difficulties posed by the rough seas, the most effective method to contain the spill early on would have been burning.

The deeper reporting, spurred by the revised leak estimate, is an encouraging development. As is the acknowledgment, widely reported over the weekend, that estimates for both the rate of the oil leak and the total amount spilled so far were ultimately unreliable. On Sunday, the Associated Press cited BP’s chief operating officer, Doug Suttles, saying it was impossible to know how much oil had gushed from the well, a sentiment that was echoed by Coast Guard officials. Other estimates emerged, too, including one from an oceanographer at Florida State University, who ventured the spill already totaled 10 million gallons.

Prevailing winds and currents have so far kept the slick mostly at sea. Judging from an almost dismissively cavalier “news analysis” on the front page of The New York Times on Tuesday, headlined “Bad. But an Apocalypse?”, there is danger that lack of landfall could produce an out-of-sight, out-of-mind effect that could kill the investigative initiative that has emerged over the past several days. The analysis also traffics heavily in the numbers game that has distracted so much media coverage. It cites the shaky, if not discredited, leak estimate of 210,000 gallons a day, to support its point that the current “blowout is not unprecedented, nor is it yet among the worst oil accidents in history.”

In one respect, the story is correct to emphasize that the Deepwater Horizon disaster is different from previous oil spills, and not yet as large; but it fails to recognize, as the AP did, that it is also different in ways that could make its impact worse.

As The Washington Post reported Monday:

The oil spill presents technical challenges far more complex than those of the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, where the quantity of oil could be easily estimated, said the [Obama] administration’s point person on the crisis, Adm. Thad W. Allen, commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard.

“This spill at this point, in my view, is indeterminate. That makes it asymmetrical, anomalous and one of the most complex things we’ve ever dealt with,” Allen said on CNN.

Nobody knows if the seventy-ton containment domes will work, and the longer term solution of a relief well could take months to put in place. We do know that in the meantime, large (if hard to quantify) amounts of oil will continue to pour through a spout in the sea floor with unknown consequences for marine and land animals, not to mention the millions of humans whose livelihoods depend on a healthy Gulf Coast. The press would do well to worry less about fixing a number of gallons on the spill total and more about holding BP and the Obama administration accountable for responding to a situation that gets worse by the day.

Brett Norman is a reporter for Politico.