It's time to revisit this subject. NOAA and BP are still saying the spill rate is 210,000 gallons (5,000 barrels) per day, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary. Many in the media continue to uncritically accept this estimate.
Why is it important to get this number right? This is about more than just liability, or PR. You can bet that our future response capacity is going to be overhauled and retooled based on this spill. If we low-ball the spill amount and rate, we run the risk of designing an inadequate new spill-response system that is doomed to fail the next time something this big occurs.
A couple of thoughts:
1) Are we really being asked to believe that the spill-response capability of one of the world's biggest oil companies AND the United States Coast Guard has been totally overwhelmed by a spill of just 210,000 gallons per day? That's a big spill, but not nearly as big as could reasonably be anticipated. Plenty of wells in the Gulf produce more than that under controlled flow-rate conditions; plenty of tankers plying our waters hold millions of gallons of oil.
2) BP claims the siphon they've inserted into the end of the damaged riser pipe is diverting 84, 000 gallons (2,000 barrels) of oil per day from the main leak to a tanker at the surface. That is good news indeed. But it's worth remembering that for nearly a week BP stated the total spill rate was only 1,000 barrels per day.
3) Scientists analyzing video of that main leak, apparently shot on May 11 and released by BP on May 12, have estimated the flow rate from that leak to be anywhere from 20,000 to 100,000 barrels per day. This makes SkyTruth's 1.1 million gallon (26,500 barrel) per day estimate, based on our measurements of the oil slick as observed on satellite images and mapped by the Coast Guard, look fairly conservative. And it doesn't even include the additional 15-20% coming from the secondary leak. That means BP's siphoning effort is only capturing, at best, about 10% of the flow. This video of the main leak, shot on May 17 after the siphon was inserted and apparently working, shows the plume of oil continuing to spew into the Gulf; it hardly looks abated.
4) Speaking of which: video shot on May 15 and 16 has just been released showing the secondary leak, where the riser pipe is kinked and bent about 90 degrees a few feet above the blowout preventer stack. Unlike the short, blurry clip of the main leak, this video is several minutes long and quite sharp.