Panel: White House Blocked Worst-Case Oil Figures

The federal commission investigating the BP oil spill has released a draft report that is highly critical of the Obama administration's response to the spill. As NPR's Ari Shapiro tells Robert Siegel, the commission says the White House blocked worst-case oil flow estimates from becoming public.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

Today, the federal commission investigating the BP oil spill released a preliminary report that is critical of the government's response. The report says the White House's public statements about the size of the spill were much more optimistic than the worst-case scenarios the administration kept private.

NPR White House correspondent Ari Shapiro covered this story as it unfolded over the summer, and he joins us now to discuss this new report.

Ari, when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig first sank last April, what did the White House say?

ARI SHAPIRO: Well, their first estimate was that it was about 1,000 barrels a day coming out of the well, and they quickly upped that to 5,000 barrels a day. We didn't know until now where that 5,000 estimate came from. This report says it was based on a one-page document from a scientist who apparently had no expertise estimating deep-sea oil flow.

Meanwhile, outside scientists were evaluating footage of the oil well gushing, and they came up with much higher estimates, more than 10 times higher. And it turns out those were much more accurate estimates. But even though those estimates were based on more sound scientific methods, this report today confirms what some of us experienced firsthand, which is that the White House pushed back hard on those and stuck with its 5,000 number for quite a while.

SIEGEL: Well, did the public estimates match the figures the administration was relying on in private?

SHAPIRO: So, eventually, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, came up with a higher worst-case scenario that they started using in private, and they wanted to release that number to the public. But according to this report, the Office of Management and Budget pushed back, and they kept using that 5,000 figure in public even though NOAA was working with a figure closer to the accurate number, roughly 60,000 barrels a day, in private.

SIEGEL: A big question which elevates this from a mere academic one is, what in fact did the estimate that the administration was using have on the way they responded to the oil spill?

SHAPIRO: Well, we don't know, and that's something that the commission is looking into and that they hope to answer. The White House always said that their response was in no way connected to the number of barrels a day that they thought were coming out of the well. We'll find that out when the commission continues its investigation.

Meanwhile, the commission says this inaccurate measurement did have an impact on the credibility and trustworthiness - the public's trust - in the government. And so they say it might have made a difference when, for example, government officials were saying Gulf seafood is safe to eat. If the government lost credibility, people might have been less eager to believe what the government was saying, less likely to believe.

SIEGEL: Now, in August, Ari, there was a big news conference in which administration officials suggested that up to 75 percent of the oil from the spill had disappeared. What does the report say about that?

SHAPIRO: Well, again, the report says this is an example of the administration making its estimates sound more solid than in fact they were.

According to this report - and this is a quote - the oil budget, which is the figure the government was using, the oil budget was never meant to be a precise tool, and its rollout as a scientific report obscures some important shortcomings, the report says.

Now, today, I've been talking with some scientists who basically spent the eight years of the Bush administration riling against what they saw as science taking a backseat to politics. They're very frustrated by this whole incident. They see it as evidence that the Obama administration has failed to live up to its promise of an evidence-based approach to problem-solving.

SIEGEL: Thank you, Ari.

SHAPIRO: You're welcome.

SIEGEL: That's NPR White House correspondent Ari Shapiro.

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