Panel catalogs many White House missteps on gulf oil spill

Debate on what to tell the public marred response

By Steven Mufson
Washington Post / October 7, 2010

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WASHINGTON — The Obama administration’s response to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill was marked by confusion over the spill rate and conflicts between agencies, which kept the public in the dark for weeks about the magnitude of the environmental disaster resulting from the April 20 well blowout, according to reports released yesterday by a presidential panel investigating the spill.

“The federal government created the impression that it was either not fully competent to handle the spill or not fully candid with the American people about the scope of the problem,’’ said one of the four working papers written by the staff of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling.

The confusion on the spill rate was created from the outset. On April 23, the day after the Deepwater Horizon rig sank, Coast Guard Rear Admiral Mary Landry told CBS news that “there is not oil emanating from the riser.’’ But the riser, a pipe that connected the rig with the wellhead on the seafloor, had not even been inspected at that point.

Later, as the gravity of the spill became clearer, agencies differed over how much to tell the public. One of the commission papers said that the Office of Management and Budget denied a request by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to release “worst-case discharge figures’’ in late April or early May, weeks before the dire dimensions of the spill were publicly known.

Instead, while outside scientists were saying that the flow rate was very high, the government stood by its April 28 estimate that 5,000 barrels of oil a day were leaking from the well, about one-tenth of the final figure. The commission report says this number was an extremely rough estimate, taken from research by a federal scientist who does not appear to have expertise in estimating deep-sea oil flows.

“The government appears to have taken an overly casual approach to the calculation and release of the 5,000 [barrels per day] estimate — which, as the only official estimate for most of May, took on great importance,’’ the report says.

“Putting aside the question of whether the public had a right to know the worst-case discharge figures, disclosure of those estimates, and explanation of their role in guiding the government effort, may have improved public confidence in the response,’’ said one of the working papers.

“Moreover,’’ the paper said, “the national response may have benefited early on from a greater sense of urgency, which public discussion of worst-case discharge figures may have generated.’’

The working paper also criticizes the Obama administration energy czar Carol Browner for her description of the “oil budget,’’ a method of calculating the fate of the oil spilled. She said it showed 75 percent of the oil was “now completely gone from the system.’’ Jane Lubchenco, NOAA administrator, used a more conservative 50-percent figure.

Both Browner and Lubchenco, however, referred to the August report on the fate of the oil as “peer-review led,’’ which the commission staff says “likely contributed to public perception of the budget’s findings as more exact and complete than the budget, as an operational tool, was designed to be.’’

“The oil budget was never meant to be a precise tool, and its rollout as a scientific report obscured some important shortcomings,’’ the commission staff said.

In a statement yesterday, Lubchenco and Jeffrey Zients, acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, disputed some findings and defended their agencies’ actions.

They said OMB had reviewed a preliminary NOAA report that projected oil movement in the gulf to “ensure the analysis reflected the best known information at the time and accurately reflected the limitation of the model and available information, including response actions.’’

They noted that the initial analysis did not include use of a boom, skimming, burning, and other methods to contain and remove the oil and “therefore ran the risk of not accurately reflecting response actions taken.’’ They said NOAA incorporated the feedback in an updated analysis.

Lubchenco and Zients also said that senior government officials were publicly clear on spill rate predictions. “In early May, Secretary Salazar and Admiral Thad Allen told the American people that the worst-case scenario could be more than 100,000 barrels a day,’’ they said.

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