BP Downplays New Higher Estimate of Oil Spill

Hours after new estimates claiming that the amount of oil leaking into the Gulf is much more than originally believed, a BP spokesman downplayed the report, saying that there is no accurate way to measure the spill.

"The estimates of how much oil is actually coming out of the well we've made clear from the very beginning is just that, it's an estimate," BP Spokesman Hugh Depland told ABC News at an information session late Thursday arranged by the oil company and the U.S. Coast Guard.

"Any number that gets attached to [the oil] is an estimate, and estimates are changeable and they have changed," said Depland.

Thursday afternoon Marcia McNutt, the director of the U.S. Geological Survey, released updated flow numbers that far exceeded initial reports. McNutt said that researchers estimate that 20,000 to 40,000 barrels of oil are spewing into the Gulf each day. Initial reports by BP had estimated that only about 5,000 barrels were leaking, a figure that the U.S. government later raised to 12,000 to 19,000. If the new higher estimate is true, 87 million gallons that have spilled -- six times the size of the Exxon Valdez disaster.

"We initially thought it was one number, but we have moved on and we now know from what we're recovering that our original estimates were significantly off," said Depland.

The information session was held at a local high school on the east bank of the Mississippi in Braithwaite, La., and showcased the BP response effort. A booth explaining how to sign up your fishing boat was near to one about how to file claims against BP while another offered information on how to help save the wildlife.

Depland made some brief opening remarks, as well as Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser, who said he "never thought the estimates were right."

"They were low-balling this thing, and I don't think they even want to know [the truth]," said Nungesser.

The federal government has upped its pressure on BP, making it expedite the number of claims to Gulf coast residents, which could top $14 billion. President Obama has formally requested a meeting next Wednesday with Carl-Henric Svanberg, chairman of BP's board of directors, and any other "appropriate officials." BP chief executive Tony Hayward will be in Washington to testify on Capitol Hill.

But some Republicans say that while the federal government shouldn't be held responsible for BP's failure -- the government should have measures in place to deal with these kinds of disasters.

"The notion that all administrations had these kinds of operations going and had no plan for really responding to this kind of disaster is horribly disappointing," Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a possible GOP presidential contender in 2012, said on "Good Morning America" today. "It's pretty clear they [the Obama administration] had no plan for what happens if a blowout preventer fails."

The local residents who showed up at the high school told ABC News that they were interested in the information being offered -- some said it was the clearest they had been provided yet -- but were really anticipating an opportunity to speak to a BP representative face to face.

"We haven't been getting accurate information," said Rev. Tyronne Edwards. "It's frightening to know that the amount of oil that's coming out is much higher [than we first thought]."

Keith Fogg, a fuel businessman, said that he doubts BP was ever telling the public accurate flow numbers.

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