A preliminary report released Wednesday by the federal commission investigating the BP oil spill blames the Obama administration for misrepresenting "the amount and fate of the oil" in the Gulf of Mexico.
"By initially underestimating the amount of oil flow and then, at the end of the summer, appearing to underestimate the amount of oil remaining in the Gulf," the report says, "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."
When the Deepwater Horizon oil well exploded and sank last April, the government first estimated that 1,000 barrels a day were coming out of the leaking well. Then the number jumped fivefold.
Source Of The Figure
This report by the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling reveals for the first time where that 5,000 barrel-a-day figure came from. A government scientist devised that figure, and it became the administration's operating estimate for a month — even though, according to the report, "there is no indication that the scientist had expertise in estimating deep-sea flow velocity from video data or that he used an established or peer-reviewed methodology."
The commission traces many such instances during the spill where the Obama administration ignored or obscured existing scientific methods and evidence, ultimately giving the public inaccurate information and damaging the government's credibility.
In May, BP released a short video clip of the gusher. Independent scientists who had experience measuring oil flow used that video to obtain much higher oil-flow measurements.
On NPR's Morning Edition, professor Steven Wereley of Purdue University revealed his measurement to be "70,000 barrels a day," with a 20 percent margin of error.
'An Extra Responsibility'
This report says Wereley's measurement and others "proved to be significantly more accurate than the official estimates." Still, government officials pushed back hard against the higher estimates.
"The administration deserves to be criticized for how it dealt with the spill estimates," said Joseph Romm, who writes the blog Climateprogress.org for the liberal Center for American Progress think tank.
He points out that BP always knew lower measurements of oil in the water could mean the company would have to pay less in damages.
"That meant the administration had an extra responsibility to do its own objective analysis," Romm said. "It was a big deal, and it should have been pursued more systematically."
In late May, the government assembled a "flow rate team" to reach a more accurate measurement. Ira Leifer, a researcher at the University of California, Santa Barbara, was part of that team.
Failure To Communicate
Leifer says he believes the science behind the scenes worked the way it was supposed to, but there was a problem communicating with the public.
"I would say, to be diplomatic, the communications process was not ideal for ensuring public confidence in the government response," Leifer said in a phone interview. "But the scientific process proceeded at the rate that we were able to do it."
The White House insists that spill measurements had no impact on the response. It has always said that the response was scaled to a worst-case scenario.
The authors of this draft report are less certain.
"Commission staff is still gathering information with which to evaluate" those assertions, the report says.
End Of The Crisis
Regardless, the commission staffers argue that "loss of the public's trust during a disaster is not an incidental public relations problem." The absence of trust "can cause major harm," they say, citing as an example the possibility that the public won't trust government assurances that beaches, or seafood, are safe once officials' credibility has been damaged.
This report also looks at the end of the crisis, when the White House examined the fate of the oil in the Gulf of Mexico.
By August the oil well was plugged, and government officials trumpeted a scientific analysis that showed good news. White House energy adviser Carol Browner was on all of the morning network talk shows, including NBC's Today show, where she said: "Our scientists have done an initial assessment, and more than three-quarters of the oil is gone."
According to the report, the administration once again made the science look exact when it was not. Later, when independent scientists came up with evidence that the outlook was gloomier and more oil remains in the Gulf, the Obama administration revised its public statements once again.