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Panel Blasts Government On Gulf Oil Spill Response

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Panel Blasts Government On Gulf Oil Spill Response

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Panel Blasts Government On Gulf Oil Spill Response

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

A report on the BP oil spill critiques the Obama administration for what it told the public. A federal commission focused on government claims that 5,000 barrels of oil were flowing into the Gulf of Mexico each day. Now we know the number was more than ten times higher. NPR White House correspondent Ari Shapiro reports on how they got it so wrong.�

ARI SHAPIRO: When the Deepwater Horizon oil well exploded and sank last April, the government first estimated that a thousand barrels a day were coming out of the leaking well.�Then the number jumped fivefold.�

Now for the first time, we know where that 5,000 barrel a day figure came from.�A preliminary report by the commission investigating the BP spill says a government scientist came up with that figure. And, quote, "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."

This report 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, according to the report.

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 measurements.�Professor Steven Werely of Purdue University revealed his measurement to NPR science correspondent Richard Harris on this program.

Professor STEVEN WERELY (Purdue University): 70,000 barrels a day.

RICHARD HARRIS: Plus or minus how much?

Prof. WERELY: Oh, about 20 percent.

SHAPIRO: The White House pushed back hard on those measurements, even though this report says they were far more accurate than the government's figures.�

Dr. JOSEPH ROMM ( The administration deserves to be criticized for how it dealt with the spill rate estimates.

SHAPIRO: Dr. Joseph Romm writes the blog for the liberal Center for American Progress.�He points out that BP always knew the lower the measurement of oil in the water, the less the company might be required to pay in damages.�

Dr. ROMM: That meant the administration I think had an extra responsibility to do its own objective analysis.

SHAPIRO: And it sounds like they failed at that responsibility.

Dr. ROMM: Yes, I think that's a fair judgment.�It was a big deal, and I think it should have been pursued more systematically.

SHAPIRO: In late May, the government assembled a flow rate team to reach a more accurate measurement.�Dr. Ira Leifer of the University of California Santa Barbara was part of that team.�He believes the science behind the scenes worked the way it was supposed to, but there was a problem communicating with the public.��

Dr. IRA LEIFER (University of California): I would say to be diplomatic the communication process was not ideal for ensuring public confidence in the government response. But the scientific process proceeded at the rate that we were able to do it.

SHAPIRO: The White House insists that spill measurements had no impact on the response.�They always said they were responding to a worst-case scenario.�The authors of this draft report are not so sure.�Commission staffers are still gathering evidence.�

Regardless, this report says, loss of the public's trust during a disaster fuels public fears, which can cause major harm.�For example, the public might not trust government assurances that beaches or seafood are safe.

This report also looks at the end of the crisis, when the White House examined the fate of the oil in the gulf. By August the well was plugged, and government officials trumpeted a scientific analysis that showed good news. White House energy advisor Carol Browner was on all the network talk shows, including NBC's Today show.

Ms. CAROL BROWNER (Energy advisor, White House): Our scientists have done an initial assessment, and more than three quarters of the oil is gone.

SHAPIRO: This new report says, once again, the administration made the science look exact, when it wasn't.�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.��

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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