Public reports are starting to say what a bunch of fairly knowledgeable people have been quietly saying: the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is a Very Bad Thing because nobody knows how bad it is: nobody knows how much oil is down there or how fast it’s flowing, and therefore nobody knows how long this will go on. What we do seem to know is we don’t know how to stop it:

“We don’t have any idea how to stop this,” Simmons said of the Gulf leak. Some of the proposed strategies—such as temporarily plugging the leaking pipe with a jet of golf balls and other material—are a “joke,” he added.

“We really are in unprecedented waters.”…

If the oil can’t be stopped, the underground reservoir may continue bleeding until it’s dry, Simmons suggested.

The most recent estimates are that the leaking wellhead has been spewing 5,000 barrels (210,000 gallons, or 795,000 liters) of oil a day.

And the oil is still flowing robustly, which suggests that the reserve “would take years to deplete,” said David Rensink, incoming president of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists.

“You’re talking about a reservoir that could have tens of millions of barrels in it.”

Wait, did they say 5,000 barrels? Maybe more:

Ian MacDonald, the FSU oceanographer whose own calculations, based on aerial imagery of the spill, show a spill more like 25,000 barrels of oil a day rather than 5,000 barrels that the Coast Guard came up with, told me, “That looks like a pretty substantial flow rate. I don’t know how they get only 5,000 barrels a day out of that. That’s really quite a gusher.”… I talked to two more experts, Greg McCormack of U-Texas and Bruce Bullock of SMU, and both said there’s no earthly way to estimate the flow based on these videos.

“Anybody who can tell you how much oil is coming out of that thing is likely lying to you,” Bullock told me.

And the administration appears unfortunately to be doing very little and saying less. As our colleague Kathy would point out, this is the kind of thing that ensures someone someday will be saying, “What did the president know and when did he know it?” After all the president has an unfortunate and, well, disappointing record on this subject:

The Obama administration is proposing to open vast expanses of water along the Atlantic coastline, the eastern Gulf of Mexico and the north coast of Alaska to oil and natural gas drilling, much of it for the first time, officials said Tuesday.

UPDATED to add, which is to say, It would be better if the administration were quicker to say what it knows about how badly things are going, rather than leaving it up to BP.

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