BP Downplays New Higher Estimate of Oil Spill

Worst spill in U.S. history prompts worries about BP's solvency.

BRAITHWAITE, La., June 11, 2010— -- 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.

"They haven't told the truth from the beginning, they haven't told the truth at all," he said.

Fogg said that he wanted to ask a BP representative why the company has done "so little" to help the coast.

"I don't understand why they're telling the public one thing about the oil and why they haven't done one thing," he said. "They haven't done one thing for the parishes to save the seafood industry, the fisherman, the hotel industry."

One commercial fisherman said that since many of the fishing spots have been closed, he's out of business and has nowhere to take his boat. He told ABC News that he's been waiting for BP to call him to help with the clean up since May 11 -- a month ago.

"It makes me frustrated because my livelihood depends on it," said Stanley Borden.

"From the beginning I always felt that [BP] wasn't giving the accurate report, and based on what we're seeing on the TV and the size of the Gulf of Mexico, I don't think they were anywhere near right with the numbers," said Borden.

Depland said that he sympathizes with the victims of the spill, and vowed to help them, even amid BP's plunging stock price and rumors that the company might not be financially stable enough to complete the cleanup.

"BP is a very strong company and we have resources that we can bring to bear to address this issue," he said. "We are fundamentally and financially strong enough to stand behind our obligation in this event."

But for Borden, money can't replace the experiences that his family has passed down from generation to generation.

"I love being in the bayou and we don't know if we're going to have a tomorrow," he said. "We're hoping to get this thing cleaned up and that's one reason we want to work -- we want to get it the oil out of the bayou."

"The oil doesn't belong there."

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

On Thursday, 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 Thursday 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' Huma Khan, David Muir, Bradley Blackburn, Dan Arnall, Matt Gutman, and The Associated Press contributed to this report.