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Blame it on Friday and not enough fun. I was reading an interesting report about oil slick size analysis and the rude gremlin that lives in my skull kept making wet spot jokes. Drill, baby, drill.

Florida State University (FSU) researchers examined oil spills in the northern Gulf of Mexico region. Using high resolution satellite images derived from synthetic aperture radar scans, they found that the slicks were much larger than official reports.

After identifying images that showed accidental slicks, FSU graduate student Samira Daneshgar Asl analysed the images with a programme that uses telltale differences in water surface texture where oil is present to calculate slick areas. She found that the slicks with known human causes were typically about 13 times larger than the estimates reported to the National Response Center.

“There is very consistent underreporting of the magnitude of [oil] releases,” says FSU team leader Ian MacDonald. “Sometimes it’s quite laughable.” On the positive side, he says that his team did find that the slicks had consistently been reported.

There is nothing humorous about the fact that oil spill volumes are consistently underreported to the Coast Guard. Nor was there anything funny about the ridiculous spin from the American Petroleum Institute.

"It is not surprising that there are discrepancies" between the radar images and the assessments reported to the Coast Guard, says Emily Kennedy, a policy analyst at the American Petroleum Institute, an industry group in Washington DC. “Remote-sensing applications can be challenging, since they often provide false positives because of natural phenomenon like sea kelp.” She notes that such images require a lot of “ground truthing” — confirming that the image shows a real slick by visiting the site, for example.
The spill estimates reported to the Coast Guard are what is used to base fines for violations of the Clean Water Act. Those fines range from $1,100 to $4,300 per barrel of crude oil spilled. Let's see. If you report spilling 100 barrels (4,200 gallons), then the feds can fine you between $110,000 and $430,000. If the real amount is 13 times the amount you reported, you just saved between $1.3 million to $5.1 in fines. Funny how that works.

A couple of other points worth mentioning. There are severe penalties for failing to report a spill, but none for underreporting one (*unless you do it before Congress). The FSU team also used low-level aerial photography and physical sampling by boat to verify the satellite scan images. In other words, the slicks were very much "truthed."

The rude gremlin reminded me of something else. There was that big old spill by BP in 2010. There was also a good deal of shenanigans over the spill rate.

Spill rate numbers presented to the public and decision-makers at the height of the crisis were less than half the true flow. The President’s National Commission found that the inaccurate low-ball numbers hampered numerous attempts to cap the run-away well and slowed clean-up efforts.

Shortly after the BP Deepwater Horizon blowout, it became evident that the company was presenting absurdly low numbers for the size of the gushing spill. In May 2010, the federal government created a team of experts, the Plume Team of the Flow Rate Technical Group, to develop the first accurate estimates of the oil leak rate. On July 30, 2010, key decision makers convened to hear the Plume Team’s estimates but the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) presentation omitted the two highest (and ultimately accurate) estimates of the oil leak rate from the Plume Team, namely, 61,000 and 62,500 bpd (barrels per day) and misled decision makers to believe that much lower estimates represented the consensus of the Plume Team.

Odd that there is never a liberal bias in industry spill size estimates or government fines. Perhaps the analyst from the American Petroleum Institute can tell us more jokes about "ground truthing." After all, what the oil industry calls 6 inches is really closer to 6.5 feet.

You know what is kind of amusing? BP originally said the spill rate from the Deepwater Horizon was 5000 bpd when in reality it was closer to 62,000 bpd. So BP was low-balling by a factor of almost 13 times the truth.

And then there is this. Definitely not funny.

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