oil spillScientists and environmental experts say oil is gushing from BP's (BP) busted well in the Gulf at a rate that's many times higher than current government estimates. I can think of several reasons why BP wouldn't want an accurate accounting -- horrible press being the first, bigger numbers for a jury to consider in liability trials being the second -- but I can't figure out why the government isn't insisting BP find out.

Despite BP's multiple assertions that there's no way to do an accurate measurement, the scientific community has several proven methods and has offered to perform them for the oil company.

BP has rejected the proffered assistance and instead pointed to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)/National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimate of 5,000 barrels per day, a number generated by a method not applicable to oil spills, reports The New York Times. That's not surprising, since preliminary calculations by scientists based on the video footage released to date are several times that amount.

Bad Policy and Bad Politics

NOAA has a central role in facilitating the oil-spill response, so why isn't it jumping at the chance to get a more accurate number? The Times piece quotes NOAA chief Dr. Jane Lubechenko: "I think the [5,000 barrel a day] estimate at the time was, and remains, a reasonable estimate.... Having greater precision about the flow rate would not really help in any way. We would be doing the same things."

Seems like both bad policy and bad politics to me not to pursue a more accurate flow rate. Bad policy because the well's flow rate could be relevant in designing a way to cap it, and because knowing the spill's size surely allows for better response planning and resourcing, both now and for future spills. Besides, doing an accurate calculation appears to be a relatively easy and low-resource effort given the description of the available methods (e.g. some methods merely require more video to be released), so it's not as if getting a good number would require losing ground in other areas of spill response.

What might happen if we documented a much higher flow rate than the currently reported figure? Well, perhaps Congress could be quickly swayed to provide more resources to NOAA. Perhaps BP could be shamed into doing even more. Then there's always the argument for getting at the truth for its own sake.

Not getting an accurate number is bad politics as well because the most intuitive explanation of why the government isn't pushing for an accurate measurement in these populist times is a decision to side with the oil company over those injured by it.

Implications for Criminal Case?

McClatchy reports the Justice Dept. will be looking into possible criminal charges related to the oil spill. If it successfully brings such charges, the limit that many worried would cap BP's liability would disappear. Surely Justice would want the most accurate numbers possible about the size of the spill -- in gallons, not just square miles -- when assessing charges, damages, or just arguing to a jury.

C'mon, NOAA, or Justice, or Environmental Protection Agency, or President Barack Obama -- get BP to come clean about how big a mess it's making.

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