Oil Spill Tests Obama Vow To Use Scientific Approach

When President Obama took office, he promised a science-based, data-driven approach to solving problems.

That philosophy has been tested in the Gulf of Mexico over the past month, as the administration tries to handle the oil spill.

Less than two months into the his presidency, Obama issued a presidential memorandum on scientific integrity "to ensure that in this new administration, we base our public policies on the soundest science," he said, "and that we are open and honest with the American people about the science behind our decisions."

Obama set a 120-day deadline for a directive to lay out the details of the science policy. The document is now almost a year late.

Francesca Grifo of the Union of Concerned Scientists says it could have been useful in the Gulf of Mexico.

"I'm just very frustrated with how long it has taken for us to have this order," she says, "particularly in light of these events, where this kind of guidance clearly could have made a difference in this situation."

Changing Estimates

The science of the oil spill has many branches. There's stopping it, cleaning it and measuring it.

As recently as Thursday, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs characterized measuring the spill as a lower priority than stopping it.

"There's not a — hey, there's a thousand-barrel-a-day response; now it's five-; get this notebook out and check — it's always been a catastrophic response," he said.

For weeks, BP and the Coast Guard estimated 5,000 barrels of oil were spilling into the Gulf each day. Then BP released video footage that independent scientists used to come up with a much higher estimate.

Government scientists who had that footage at least a week before the public didn’t change their estimate until Thursday, when the Coast Guard acknowledged that the initial figure was too low.

In a teleconference, Jane Lubchenco of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said a group of government scientists came together just this week to seek a scientifically defensible measurement.

"We've always said that it is extremely important to get a reliable flow rate," she said. "But we've known all along that doing so would be extraordinarily difficult."

When asked why a month had passed before trying for a reliable figure, despite the existence of established techniques for measuring undersea oil flow, Lubchenco said, "The decision was made that the first priority had to be to stop the flow."

But that still doesn't explain why the government failed to analyze the video footage BP provided weeks ago — or why President Obama made this statement in the White House Rose Garden last Friday: "I know there have been varying reports over the last few days about how large the leak is. But since no one can get down there in person, we know there is a level of uncertainty."

'Politics In The Air'

That answer was not enough for some scientists who were expecting the data-driven, science-based approach this White House promised.

"I would like to have seen the administration push harder to get a better number," says Joseph Romm, who writes the blog Climate Progress for the left-leaning Center for American Progress.

As a presidential candidate, Obama often criticized the Bush administration for ignoring science.

But if John Marburger, science adviser to President Bush, is feeling any schadenfreude right now, he's not telling.

"The fact is, there is politics in the air on all these things," he says, "and I don't think anyone is surprised by that. It's important that President Obama has been supportive of science."

He says it's just unfortunate that in any administration, sometimes politics muddies the water.

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Correction May 24, 2010

A sentence in an earlier version of this story was modified to more clearly paraphrase White House spokesman Robert Gibbs' statements about measuring the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

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