Sometimes the appearance of action seems more important than the consequences.

BP is getting some great headlines today regarding its successful “cut” of an oil pipe located a mile below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico. But the math and odds of success are, pardon me, at odds with the headlines.

First The Odds
The cut did not go smoothly, no pun intended:

Crucially, the cut achieved by the shears was much more jagged than had been hoped — an earlier attempt to make a smooth break using a diamond-studded saw failed when the equipment jammed.

As a result of the jagged cut, the seal that can be secured between the damaged pipe and the container funnel that will be placed over it to collect the out-pouring oil will be less snug than desirable, and thus more prone to leakage.

Then, The Math
BP spokesmen say that “until the cap is in place the oil flow would likely increase by as much as 20 percent.” In a worst-case scenario (cap failure), we’ve just boosted the flow from the damaged pipe by “as much as” 20 percent.

And we all know what a great job BP has done with estimating oil flow.

After all, on day one BP estimated 1,000 barrels a day. Last week, USGS boosted that estimate to as much as 19,000 barrels a day (that’s about 800,000 gallons; a barrel is 42 gallons). Note: over at The Guardian, today’s story has a major typo; it says that “up to 19,000 gallons of oil [have been] spewing” from the damaged well each day. Even BP’s initial estimate was 42,000 gallons.

And that official range, in all probability, underestimates the flow. That’s because it is a range that the scientists could agree on as a “lower bound” estimate because “due to the low-quality data BP provided to us, it would be irresponsible and unscientific to estimate an upper bound to the emission.” (Read the report from DOI.)

Here’s why I’m fixated on math and this magic 20 percent number. And it has nothing to do with the actual flow per day but instead with relative measurements.

On Tuesday, Danny Westneat shocked me with data that I’d not seen reported: according to NOAA, we will be “lucky to clean up 20 percent of the tens of millions of gallons of oil fouling the Gulf of Mexico… It’s apparently the accepted norm that we can clean up only 20 percent of an oil spill.”

Here’s the math conundrum:

Let’s assume that yesterday, before the pipe was cut, that 1 million gallons of oil was spewing from that pipe. (I rounded “up” from 800,000 gallons of that “lower bound estimate” because it makes the math easier.)

What is 20 percent of 1 million gallons? It’s 200,000 gallons. So, before today, we could expect 800,000 gallons of oil per day to be floating around the Gulf of Mexico and washing ashore or “degrading naturally” and 200,000 gallons to be “cleaned up” somehow.

Starting today, assuming BP’s numbers are accurate and there is only a 20 percent increase in flow due to cutting that pipe, we have as much as 1.2 million gallons of oil gushing out of the pipe. What’s 20 percent of 1.2 million? The answer: 240,000. Subtract from 1.2 million: that leaves 960,000 gallons to float around or degrade naturally.

Yesterday: as much as 800,000 gallons unrecoverable.

After today’s “success” : as much as 960,000 gallons unrecoverable.

Raise your had if you think BP has an even chance of a successful cap that actually reduces the flow coming out of the pipe. Right.

So if today’s “success” increases the overall flow of oil by even 1 percent, we are at less than net zero. That’s why I say that appearance of action seems more important than possible consequences.

But I hope, from the bottom of my pessimistic heart, that I am wrong.

:: Follow me on Twitter!

KATHY GILL, Technology Policy Analyst
Click here for reuse options!
Copyright 2010 The Moderate Voice