A combustible mix for White House: Gulf oil spill and politics


President Obama’s vow that science would guide energy policy in the wake of the Gulf oil spill has come under scrutiny amid reports that unnamed people within the White House, in a late-night editing session of a drilling safety paper, made it sound as if a scientific group backed a controversial six-month deepwater-drilling moratorium – when, in fact, the group didn’t.

The Interior Department’s acting inspector general, Mary Kendall, released her findings on the discrepancy Wednesday, saying that the May 27 paper, released by the Interior Department, “could have been more clearly worded.” But, she added, the Interior Department “has not definitely” violated the Information Quality Act (IQA). That law forbids federal agencies from releasing information they know is false.

“The department also appears to have adequately remedied the IQA concerns by communicating directly with the experts, offering a formal apology and publicly clarifying the nature of the peer review,” Ms. Kendall said.

But the matter is unlikely to go away entirely, given that a presidential oil-spill commission has been critical both of Mr. Obama’s slow response early on to the crisis and of White House findings that played down the impact of the oil spill. In this context, Kendall’s findings fall straight into the hands of congressional Republicans, who have already hinted they’ll use their new House majority to investigate whether the White House’s energy policy was driven by politics.

The moratorium, which ended before the six-month mark on Oct. 12, galvanized feelings – especially on the Gulf Coast – that the White House was using the spill as a way to push forward a new energy agenda. That agenda, some said, would cost jobs and hobble Gulf Coast economies already taking a beating from the effects of the oil spill.

Indeed, the moratorium, critics say, may have cost the region $1.8 billion in economic activity and thousands of jobs as oil companies have moved some of their big drill rigs to other parts of the world. Petroleum groups and pro-drilling advocates on both sides of the aisle called the moratorium too sweeping from the beginning.

“This [inspector general’s] report reveals exactly what I suspected all along: Obama administration officials appear to have deliberately disregarded the Information Quality Act to push their destructive moratorium that has crushed job growth along the Gulf Coast,” said Sen. David Vitter (R) of Louisiana, according to the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

Interior Department officials, including Secretary Ken Salazar, pushed back against suggestions that officials were misusing the science. The moratorium, they say, was an executive decision that was linked to the scientific group by mistake during an overnight rush to finish the document.

“Following a review that included interviews with peer review experts, the inspector general found no intentional misrepresentation of their views,’’ White House deputy press secretary Bill Burton told the Associated Press. “The decision to implement a six-month moratorium on deep-water drilling in the Gulf of Mexico was correctly based on the need for adequate spill response, well containment and safety measures, and we stand behind that decision.’’

The Bush White House was accused in 2005 of editing scientific documents to weaken established links between carbon emissions and global warming. Likewise, the review of the drilling-moratorium report may force the Obama administration to better explain to Americans its justifications for shutting down deepwater exploration in the wake of the Gulf oil spill.

“This is important enough to revisit for several reasons,” writes Ken Blanchard in the South Dakota Politics blog. “[T]he Administration was clearly distorting science to back its policy agenda. The Bush Administration was frequently accused of this. If it was serious when a Republican was in the White House, it’s serious now.”

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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