The blown-out well in the Gulf of Mexico gushed 12 times faster than the government and BP estimated in the early weeks of the crisis and has spilled a whopping 4.9 million barrels, or 205.8 million gallons, according to a more detailed analysis announced late Monday.
The new figures indicate that the roughly 800,000 barrels of oil that BP managed to capture with its various containment strategies -- a riser insertion tool, a "top hat," and flaring from a surface rig -- represented only about one-sixth of the crude that surged into the gulf over the course of nearly three months. In all, about 1.2 million barrels of oil have been accounted for, either burned, captured or skimmed off the ocean's surface. That's about a quarter of the new estimate for the total spill.
Where the other three-quarters has gone is unclear. Some has evaporated; some has been consumed by microbes; but scientists remain troubled by the possibility that large amounts of oil remain underwater in cloudlike plumes.
For government lawyers preparing a case against BP, this number could help calculate the maximum civil penalty BP might face for the spill. If BP is not found to have acted with negligence, the penalty would be $1,100 per barrel. About 4.1 million barrels escaped into the gulf, according to the new estimate, so that fine would come to $4.5 billion. If BP is found to have acted with "gross negligence" in the lead-up to the spill, the maximum penalty would be $4,300 a barrel, which would work out to $17.6 billion.