"The Gulf of Mexico oil spill may be growing five times faster than previously estimated and is in danger of accelerating out of control, it was claimed yesterday.
Experts said satellite data indicated the oil was gushing from BP’s sunken Deepwater Horizon rig at 25,000 barrels a day. Previous estimates had put the leak at 5,000 barrels a day.
Professor Ian MacDonald, an ocean specialist at Florida State University, said the new estimate suggested the leak had already spread 9m gallons of heavy crude oil across the Gulf. This compares with 11m that leaked from the Exxon Valdez tanker when it hit a reef off Alaska in 1989.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said deteriorating conditions on the sea bed may result in an even greater flow of 50,000 barrels a day, sufficient to produce one of America’s worst ecological disasters.
Experts and officials said their greatest fear was that a disintegration of pipes close to the rig could produce an “unchecked gusher” that would ravage America’s southern coastline.
As the slick slowly drifted towards fragile shorelines from Louisiana to Florida, there was intensified criticism of BP for apparently underestimating the potential scale of the disaster.
The British oil giant faces questions over how much it knew about previous problems with “blowout preventers”, the giant underwater valves designed to shut down oil flow in the event of accidents.
The valves on the rig failed to work after it exploded on April 20. BP technicians have been unable to activate them even though they appear to be undamaged by the blast.
BP has calculated that it might take up to three months to sink a new well that could cut off the flow of the Deepwater Horizon’s oil.
The worst oil spill affecting US waters was caused by a 1979 blowout aboard the Ixtoc, a Mexican rig that discharged at least 130m gallons, 600 miles south of the Texas coast. It took nine months to plug the leak.