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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Sunday Replay

This Sunday’s round of political talk shows left a few misimpressions, among them the notion that nothing like the BP blowout had happened before. We clear up the confusion.

Barbour on Blowouts

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour told "Fox News Sunday" viewers that the BP oil spill is the first time that "anything like this" has happened. Actually, a similar offshore blowout occurred in 1979, gushing thousands of barrels of crude oil per day into the Gulf of Mexico, fouling Texas beaches and marshes. Barbour, a Republican, was pushing for continued drilling in the Gulf.

Haley Barbour: In the last 50 years, the four states that allow offshore drilling on the Gulf, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas and Alabama — more than 30,000 wells have been drilled in the Gulf of Mexico. This is the first time in that more than 30,000 we have ever had anything like this happen. About 30 percent of America’s production of oil and gas coming out of the Gulf of Mexico.

That’s not true. In fact, a 2-mile deep exploratory well named IXTOC I blew out in the Bahia de Campeche in 1979. It was being drilled by the Mexican oil company PEMEX. The spill started June 3 and wasn’t capped until nearly 10 months later, after two relief wells had been drilled. Although the well was located 600 miles south of Texas, the oil reached U.S. beaches and bayous. "Ultimately, 71,500 barrels of oil impacted 162 miles of U.S. beaches, and over 10,000 cubic yards of oiled material were removed," according to the National Ocean Service of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. And that’s just the worst example.

It’s not even true that the current spill is the first major blowout in the waters of the four states that Barbour specified, either. In 1970, Shell Offshore Inc. experienced a blowout, explosion and fire on a well in Louisiana’s South Timbalier region. It caused four fatalies and 36 injuries, destroyed the top of the drilling platform and two drilling rigs, and spilled 53,000 barrels of crude into the Gulf, according to the U.S. Minerals Management Service.

Blowouts in offshore drilling are not uncommon, in the Gulf of Mexico or elsewhere. A total of 573 blowouts of varying severity worldwide are tabulated in an "offshore blowout database" maintained by the Scandavian research organization SINTEF. Barbour would have been correct to say the current disaster is the worst in the Gulf of Mexico in recent years, but it’s far from the first.

Funding the Cleanup

Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen got a bit tangled in his explanation of where federal money for the response to the oil leak is coming from on CNN’s "State of the Union":

Allen: There are two sources of funding. BP can fund response actions directly. But after the Exxon Valdez, they established the oil spill liability trust fund. So if there was no responsible party, we had oil on the beach, we didn’t know the source, the — either EPA or the Coast Guard could respond either inland or in the maritime environment and clean it up and have a funding source to do that.

But it has to be appropriated each year into the emergency response fund. The principal fund has over $1 billion. And we want to move money from the principal fund into the response fund so we can spend it.

Actually, the money doesn’t have to be appropriated annually. Allen was talking about the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, which can be used to pay for federal and state costs of assessing and restoring natural resources damaged by oil spills.

Timothy Eastman, chief of the case management division at the National Pollution Funds Center, told us that the principal fund currently holds about $1.6 billion. Each year $50 million from the principal automatically is transferred to the emergency fund, but if that’s not enough, the emergency fund can get an advance of $100 million per year without congressional approval. Eastman said the fund had already done that because of the Deepwater Horizon leak. As of Sunday at midnight, he said, there was $54,414,341 remaining.

That probably won’t be enough, and that’s where Congress comes in: The National Pollution Funds Center has asked to transfer another $100 million advance to the emergency response fund, Eastman said. That request needs congressional approval.

Both Allen and Eastman stressed that most of the costs of dealing with the impact of the spill in the Gulf are being borne by BP.

Clinton’s Endorsement

Also on "State of the Union," Bill Halter, Arkansas’ lieutenant governor who is in a primary runoff for Blanche Lincoln’s Senate seat on June 8, was a bit off when talking about Bill Clinton’s role in the race. Responding to host Candy Crowley’s query about why the former president had endorsed Lincoln rather than him:

Halter: Well, President Clinton had endorsed Senator Lincoln before I got in the race. I understand standing with commitments. He has also said some nice things about me and I’m grateful for that.

Actually, Clinton came out in support of Lincoln in March, well after Halter was in the race. However, Clinton’s office said at the time that Lincoln had asked for his support several months earlier and he had pledged it.

More Low-Ball Estimates?

Coast Guard Admiral Allen also appeared on CBS’ "Face the Nation," where he gave low and high estimates for how much oil is leaking in the Gulf. CBS News investigative correspondent Sharyl Attkisson later said — correctly — that those figures were only the "lower bound" estimates. Independent scientists assembled by Allen have yet to publish upper-end numbers.

Allen: One range was twelve to nineteen thousand barrels a day, the other one was twelve to twenty-five thousand barrels a day. Based on the anal– analyzing the video and everything else, that is the official government estimate and the range. That will be verified and validated once we get into full production with the containment cap.

Host Bob Schieffer: So you’re saying twelve to nineteen thousand barrels a day is not the lowend estimate that —

Allen: Twelve is the low. Nineteen is the high. In another model, twelve is low and twenty-five– we have two different models. And, frankly, I would tell it right, these are estimates.

Schieffer: These are estimates–

Allen (overlapping): They continue to be estimates until we get actual empirical data.

Later in the program, Attkisson said Allen was wrong.

Attkisson: Well, Commandant Allen, if he’s saying that twelve to nineteen or twelve to twenty-five thousand barrels a day is the range, the estimate of oil coming out of there as figured by the independent scientist that he hired to do this or that he’s tasked, that’s incorrect. I have the actual report, which shows the plume modeling team said at least twelve to twenty five-thousand barrels a day are coming out of there. And, that is the lower bound. They have yet to release the upper bound, which sources tell me will be significantly higher. That has not yet been released by the government. But the government has been treating the low bound as if it’s the entire range.

The reporter is right. The Flow Rate Technical Group, established by Allen to study the rate of the oil flowing into the Gulf, has only released minimum estimates. In an interim report to the FRTG, one team, the Plume Calculation Team, said the 12,000 to 25,000 barrels per day range was "an estimated minimum."

Plume Calculation Team report, May 27: … only a range of values that represent an estimated minimum can be given. Using estimates from the video and auxiliary data given them by BP, the consensus of most of the experts is that the leakage at the time of the viewed video clips averaged at least 12,000 to 25,000 bbl of oil per day plus considerable natural gas, and could possibly be significantly larger if the conservative assumptions used to make the estimate were relaxed.

A May 27 press release from the FRTG on its preliminary report indicated that an upper estimate was in the works. It said that the "plume" team "continue[s] to work to provide an upper bound" estimate.