Oil is flowing out of BP's leak in the Gulf of Mexico at a rate eight times faster than officials previously acknowledged, raising worries that BP's containment efforts can do little to fight a spill that already may be six times the size of the Exxon-Valdez disaster.
The initial estimate following the disaster pegged the rate at 1,000 barrels per day. Next, BP and the federal government maintained for weeks that the flow was 5,000 barrels per day.
Today a federal task force assigned to examine the rate came up with a far different number -- a likely flow of 20,000 to 40,000 barrels per day before the riser pipe was cut.
According to the highest estimate, some 87.3 million gallons of crude have leaked into the Gulf so far, far worse than BP and the government's previous worst-case scenarios.
While the government and BP had since bumped up their estimates from the 5,000 barrel-per-day number, today's figures are still considerably higher than the 12,000- to 19,000-barrel-per-day estimate that Adm. Thad Allen defended on Tuesday by saying, "I am the government and we are not low-balling."
BP Soon Will Expand Collection Capacity
While BP already is able to siphon nearly 16,000 barrels per day from the leaking pipe using its containment cap, that still leaves thousands of barrels gushing into the ocean, as can be seen on a live video feed from the ocean floor.
BP says that it will soon be able to expand its collection efforts. A second vessel should arrive within days to increase collection capacity, and BP will bring in a tanker to transport the gathered oil. The company also said that a semi-submersible drilling rig could begin capturing and burning another 10,500 barrels per day beginning early next week.
Can BP Remain Solvent?
The new numbers on the leak rate raise new questions about whether BP will be able to pay for all of the cleanup and containment costs.
The company's stock price has been fluctuating wildly, and BP shareholders are worried that the company could drown in claims.
By some estimates, the company now owes $14 billion to the people of the Gulf, including men like Michael Rogers, who worked in the oyster business for nearly 40 years. Oyster beds have been shut down because of the spill.
"It's real sad, you know," said Rogers. "I just feel like going behind the building to just cry."
Obama Administration Promises BP Will Expedite Claims
Today, the Obama administration said that BP has agreed to speed up claims, but there's still no promise to ease the paperwork or change the payouts. Right now, payments are structured based on what people made over the last three years, already tough times for people in the region because of fallout from Katrina.
With the fishing industry paralyzed, there's also fear that Washington's decisions will paralyze another business crucial to the region's economic health -- the oil industry. While many locals are angry with BP, the Gulf Coast remains dependent on oil jobs, many of which could disappear amid the Obama administration's moratorium on deep water drilling.
"Every one of these 33 deep water wells employs, directly, hundreds of people and indirectly thousands," Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., told ABC News' "Good Morning America" today.
The fear is that stopping drilling too long could bring the region's already-battered economy to a halt.
"What I said to the White House is we didn't mind them stopping it -- we said, 'Don't stop it longer than needed," Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, said today. "I don't have any problem with them saying we have to take a pause."
Onboard a Coast Guard flight today out to the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig accident that precipitated the oil leak, ABC News observed miles of brown, oily stripes on the ocean surface that are moving toward shore.
All that oil is having a disastrous effect on Gulf wildlife. More animals now are being brought into rescue centers than ever before. At a Fort Jackson wildlife refuge, twice as many dead birds were brought in today as Wednesday.
ABC News' Dan Arnall and Matt Gutman, and The Associated Press contributed to this report.