SIZE MATTERS…. BP has said it doesn’t really know how much oil is gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, but the exact number isn’t especially relevant. A company spokesperson said “the estimated rate of flow would not affect either the direction or scale of our response.”

But there’s more to it than that.

BP initially said the disaster was producing about 1,000 barrels a day. Soon after, a government agency put the number closer to 5,000 barrels a day. As more information has become available, estimates have soared. Techniques and experts are available to assist with the measurement, but BP doesn’t want to use them.

Getting reliable information seems like a good idea.

Scientists said that the size of the spill was directly related to the amount of damage it would do in the ocean and onshore, and that calculating it accurately was important for that reason. […]

Environmental groups contend … that the flow rate is a vital question. Since this accident has shattered the illusion that deep-sea oil drilling is immune to spills, they said, this one is likely to become the touchstone in planning a future response.

“If we are systematically underestimating the rate that’s being spilled, and we design a response capability based on that underestimate, then the next time we have an event of this magnitude, we are doomed to fail again,” said John Amos, the president of SkyTruth. “So it’s really important to get this number right.”

Meanwhile, there are some fears that it will simply be impossible to shut down the gusher of oil, and that the spill will get worse until it’s tapped dry. BP’s chief executive has estimated “that the reservoir tapped by the out-of-control well holds at least 50 million barrels of oil.” That’s about 2 billion gallons — making this disaster easily the worst ever.

Adding insult to injury, the Minerals Management Service, the agency within the Interior Department responsible for offshore drilling, continues to be an embarrassment. In the Bush/Cheney era, MMS became one of the most corrupt government agencies in American history, embracing an anything-goes atmosphere that led to literally Caligula-like corruption and debauchery — including federal officials trading cocaine and sex for lucrative oil contracts.

Today we learn that MMS “gave permission to BP and dozens of other oil companies to drill in the Gulf of Mexico without first getting required permits from another agency that assesses threats to endangered species — and despite strong warnings from that agency about the impact the drilling was likely to have on the gulf.”

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.