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It's been a year and a half since oil suddenly gushed from the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig into the Gulf of Mexico.
In the early days, rig operator BP estimated about 1,000 barrels a day might be escaping into the gulf. The true number? More like 50,000 to 60,000 barrels — or more than 2 million gallons — every day, for nearly three months.
How did we learn it was so high?
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., says it wasn't until he and a Senate colleague were able to "wrangle the actual streaming video" from BP that scientists were able to calculate the flow.
Nelson spoke about the spill Oct. 11, 2011, on the Senate floor, where he urged his colleagues to find a way to fund gulf research. He began:
"As one of the senators from a state that borders the Gulf of Mexico, naturally we have been quite concerned in the followup to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. You will remember that was an oil spill that at first BP said: Oh, it was only 1,000 barrels a day. It was not until Sen. (Barbara) Boxer, the chairman of the environment committee, and I were able to wrangle the actual streaming video from 5,000 feet below the surface and put it up on my Web site that the scientists could then calculate how much oil was coming out. It was not anywhere close to 1,000 barrels a day. In fact, it ended up being 50,000 barrels of oil a day that was gushing into the Gulf of Mexico. As a result of that total number of days, almost 5 million barrels of oil has gushed into the gulf, we can expect some serious economic and environmental consequences and particularly the consequences on the critters."
The senior senator from Florida, responsible for lifting the veil on a disaster unfolding 5,000 feet underwater?
For this fact-check, we're weighing the statement, "It was not until Sen. Boxer ... and I were able to wrangle the actual streaming video (of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill) from 5,000 feet below the surface and put it up on my Web site that the scientists could then calculate how much oil was coming out."
We reached out to scientists, reviewed news and video from the time, checked official reports on the spill and spoke with the senator's office.
• • •
On April 20, 2010, an explosion ripped through the drilling rig, killing 11 crew members. As flames raged above water 49 miles off the coast of Louisiana, something equally violent was happening beneath the surface.
It wasn't yet clear what.
But within a day, a nonprofit group called SkyTruth, led by a geologist who had worked for the energy industry, began collecting and analyzing satellite images of the spill — brown swirls a reporter would later say resembled peanut butter. The group got help from Florida State oceanographer Ian MacDonald.
On April 24, BP said that a broken riser pipe was leaking 1,000 barrels a day. A few days later, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration boosted the estimate to 5,000 barrels. That was the first official "flow rate estimate." It would be used for weeks. It wasn't based on much.
In late April and early May, SkyTruth said satellite images and Coast Guard maps of the slick showed the flow might be more than four times that.
But none of those estimates could fully account for what was happening below the surface, where chemical dispersants created tiny droplets that spread in underwater plumes.
• • •
On May 12, BP released a 30-second video of oil and gas spilling from the end of a broken pipe — and scientists scrambled to update their estimates, which now ranged from 20,000 to 100,000 barrels a day. By mid May, media reports spread additional doubt about the 5,000-barrel estimate. Rep. Edward Markey, the Massachusetts Democrat who chaired the Energy and Environment Subcommittee, sent BP a letter questioning the size of the spill.
A few days later, Sens. Nelson and Boxer sent their demand for underwater video. They soon got seven hard drives of high-resolution digital imagery, thousands of hours, said Nelson spokesman Dan McLaughlin. Low-resolution streaming video — what you may have seen online — wouldn't give scientists the detail they needed, so the senators' offices also uploaded high-resolution files to large-file transfer sites on the Web and in some cases even copied the hard drives and sent them to researchers, such as Timothy Crone at Columbia University.
In June, the senators repeated their call for video evidence, this time for all video records.
In the Oct. 29, 2010, issue of Science magazine, a report co-authored by Crone said the oil's flow was at least 10 times higher than first reported. It credited high-resolution video data "provided by the office of Senator Bill Nelson and by the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works."
"Sen. Nelson was one of the strongest proponents of open data access, and his work along with the work of others on that committee were critical for the work of independent scientists to go forward," Crone told PolitiFact Florida.
Paul Ruscher, a Florida State professor who along with MacDonald urged that BP release more information, said much of what scientists suggested was initially ignored.
"It was a staffer from Sen. Nelson's office who was contacted at some point, and whom I then contacted, to try to encourage both Senate and House energy committee members to get involved," he said.
Ruscher said Nelson and other politicians, including Sen. John Kerry and Markey, should get full credit for pushing NOAA, the Coast Guard and BP to release video.
Final official estimates came from the Flow Rate Technical Group, which used several methods to estimate the amount of oil that streamed from Deepwater Horizon. Among its evidence: high-resolution video.
Nelson told his Senate colleagues, "It was not until Sen. Boxer ... and I were able to wrangle the actual streaming video (of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill) from 5,000 feet below the surface and put it up on my Web site that the scientists could then calculate how much oil was coming out."
Scientists quickly challenged BP's early estimate based on satellite images and Coast Guard maps. Independent estimates improved when BP released short video clips. But scientists who specialize in flow rate calculations based on high-resolution, time-stamped video didn't have access to data they needed until Nelson's and Boxer's offices pushed for it. Some of those files were indeed downloaded from Nelson's website, while some were on physical hard drives that had to be mailed.
A casual listener might think scientists were unable to make early calculations that challenged BP's word without video from Nelson's website — and that's not quite the case. Meanwhile, other lawmakers also pushed for greater openness. But letters, press releases and interviews show Nelson did play a key role in the release of critical data, and for that we'll rate his statement Mostly True.
Sen. Bill Nelson, floor speech on gulf oil spill, Congressional Record, Page S6366, Oct. 11, 2011
Interview with Sara Gonzalez-Rothi, environmental counsel for Sen. Bill Nelson, Oct. 21, 2011
E-mail interview with Paul Woods, chief technical officer for SkyTruth, Oct. 20, 2011
E-mail interview with Timothy Crone, Lamont assistant research professor, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University, Oct. 19, 2011
Skytruth.org, "BP spill: Using science to hold BP and federal regulators accountable," accessed Oct. 20, 2011
Skytruth.org, Media Log, April 2010, accessed Oct. 19, 2011
Skytruth.org, Media Log, May 2010, accessed Oct. 19, 2011
New York Times' Green blog, "Oil Spill, Redux: Revisiting a mystery," Feb. 4, 2011
TampaBay.com, "Underwater oil leak at Deepwater Horizon Well in Gulf," May 12, 2010 (Video courtesy U.S. Coast Guard)
New York Times, "Size of oil spill underestimated, scientists say," May 13, 2010
The Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, "Markey to BP: How Much Oil?" May 14, 2010
NPR, "Gulf spill may far exceed official estimates," May 14, 2010
St. Petersburg Times, "Obama assails oil executives," May 15, 2010
New York Times, "Giant plumes of oil forming under the gulf," May 15, 2010
U.S. Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works, "Senators Boxer, Nelson seek videos for review of growing oil spill," May 17, 2010
Houston Chronicle's NewsWatch: Energy blog, "Lawmakers keep up push for videos of gusher," May 17, 2010
Houston Chronicle's NewsWatch: Energy blog, "Why do we really care about how much oil is spilling? *update*," May 18, 2010
U.S. Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works, "BP Agrees to Comply with Boxer and Nelson Request to Turn Over Oil Spill Videos," May 18, 2010
Sen. Bill Nelson's YouTube Channel, "Sen. Nelson release of BP leak video 1," May 18, 2010
Sen. Bill Nelson's YouTube Channel, "Sen. Nelson release of BP leak video 2," May 18, 2010
Sen. Bill Nelson's YouTube Channel, "Sen. Nelson release of BP leak video 3," May 18, 2010
Sen. Bill Nelson's YouTube Channel, "Sen. Nelson release of BP leak video 4," May 18, 2010
TampaBay.com, "New underwater video released of oil leak," May 18, 2010 (Video courtesy of BP America)
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, "BP releases nine days of video showing oil leaks, dispersion on Gulf of Mexico floor," May 20, 2010
Sen. Bill Nelson's YouTube Channel, "Never before seen footage," May 20, 2010
Sen. Bill Nelson's YouTube Channel, "On the seabed," May 21, 2010
New York Times, "The Measure of a Disaster," May 21, 2010
St. Petersburg Times, "Government spill response too slow," May 22, 2010
U.S. Department of the Interior, "Flow rate group provides preliminary best estimate of oil flowing from BP oil well," updated June 7, 2010
U.S. Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works, "Boxer, Nelson to BP: 'Release all oil spill video records to scientists and the public,' " June 8, 2010
RestoreTheGulf.gov, "U.S. scientific team draws on new data, multiple scientific methodologies to reach updated estimate of oil flows form BP's well," June 15, 2010
RestoreTheGulf.gov, "U.S. scientific teams refine estimates of oil flow from BP's well prior to capping," Aug. 2, 2010
National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling, Full Final Report, released Jan. 11, 2011
St. Petersburg Times, "State vessel monitors oil's advance sheen by sheen, glob by glob," June 7, 2010
Environmental Law Institute, "Impacts, Perception, and Policy Implications of the Deepwater Horizon Oil and Gas Disaster" by Elliot Norse and John Amos, 2010
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