Oil company BP told federal regulators it could handle an oil spill more than 50 times larger than the one it is now struggling to contain in the Gulf of Mexico, according to documents and congressional testimony Wednesday.
BP America Chairman Lamar McKay told the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee that the company's worst-case estimate of a possible spill from the well that was ripped open by an explosion in April was 250,000 barrels a day for 30 days. Meanwhile, an exploration plan BP filed with in 2009 estimated an uncontrolled blowout could release between 162,000 and 300,000 barrels a day.
In that document, filed with the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service, BP called a spill "unlikely." It stated that if one did happen, however, it "has the capability to respond, to the maximum extent practicable, to a worst-case discharge, or a substantial threat of such a discharge, resulting from the activities proposed in our Exploration Plan."
But with the company still trying to cap a leak estimated at 5,000 barrels (210,000 gallons) per day and syrupy, brown fingers of crude starting to seep into the Louisiana marshes, McKay faced another day of pointed questions about the disaster.
"Would you make that statement today?" the committee's chairman, Minnesota Democratic Rep. James Oberstar, asked McKay.
McKay responded that the spill uncorked by the late April sinking of the drill rig Deepwater Horizon was "a very unique situation" and that the company's response on the surface was "very robust."
"I think they were enacted within two hours of the explosion, and that has proved to be impactful and I think effective," he said. But he said the plans didn't take into account the failure of the rig's blowout preventer, a massive piece of equipment designed to slam shut in case of an emergency, or the failure of the well's pipe riser stack to disconnect.
McKay said the plan was being adjusted "based on the characteristics of this oil and where the oil's going," and that a siphon inserted into the larger of the two leak points over the weekend was now capturing about 2,000 barrels per day - about 40 percent of the spill.
But Rep. Donna Edwards, D-Maryland, questioned whether the response plan was adequate.
"If you are implementing a full response plan at 5,000 barrels a day, which is 2 percent of your worst-case scenario, I can't even envision what else could be done or deployed if we were seeing, you know, a greater spill than what you estimate," she said.
McKay discounted estimates that have suggested the leak could be many times larger than the 5,000-barrel figure produced in late April. But he added, "There's a range around that, and there's uncertainty."