Aiding and Abetting the Perpetrator: Email Confirms White House Pressured Scientists to Lie About Size of BP Spill


It’s official: The White House engaged in an aggressive campaign to pressure scientists into drastically underestimating the initial size of the BP oil spill – a campaign that impacted the scope, speed and overall effectiveness of the response. There are also legal ramifications, as fines are to be levied against BP based on how much oil is estimated to have been released into the Gulf of Mexico.

Here’s how Mother Jones, an independent investigative news organization, set up the breaking story yesterday afternoon (Jan. 23):

Back at the height of the massive Gulf oil spill in 2010, there was quite a bit of controversy about just how much crude was blasting out of the well. According to new documents that a watchdog group released on Monday, there was heated debate among the scientists who evaluated the flow rate as well.

For the first few weeks after the spill began in April 2010, BP misled the public about how big it was, and the government repeated BP’s estimate without question. And when the government released its own estimate in late May of up to 25,000 barrels per day, that too was controversial – and proved to be far lower than the actual, which was more like 53,000 barrels of oil per day.

A bombshell email exchange, acquired through a Freedom of Information request, confirms that the Obama Administration worked behind the scenes to downplay the amount of oil gushing from the crippled Macondo Well in the early days of what would become the worst spill in U.S. history. More from Kate Sheppard’s Mother Jones report:

…an email released by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) traces efforts to downplay the spill size in the initial weeks back to the White House. The group released a May 29, 2010 email from Dr. Marcia McNutt, the director of the US Geologic Survey and head of the government’s Flow Rate Technical Group (FRTG), that was released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. The email came after scientists on the flow-rate team complained to McNutt about how the spill figures were conveyed to the press, and in response she cited pressure from the White House as the reason the numbers were low-balled. Rather than reporting that the lower-end estimate of the spill was 25,000 barrels per day, officials cited that figure as the higher-end estimate:

I cannot tell you what a nightmare the past two days have been dealing with the communications people at the White House, DOI [Department of Interior], and the NIC [National Intelligence Council] who seem incapable of understanding the concept of a lower bound. The press release that went out on our results was misleading and was not reviewed by a scientist for accuracy.

Dr. McNutt’s use of the word “nightmare” clearly indicates an intense discomfort with the pressure that was brought to bear and a clear understanding of the repercussions tied to releasing data known to be inaccurate. Her two-page email (see full text at bottom) goes on to reveal specific recommendations from high-ranking government officials as to how to “word” the lowball oil-flow estimates:

Let me give you a flavor of some of the “suggestions” I was getting from the NIC and from the communications people at the White House and DOI as recently as yesterday afternoon as to how to “simplify” our bottom line:

From a NIC Admiral: How about just saying that the range of flow rates is 12,000 to 25,000 barrels per day? (No, because the 25,000 is a LOWER bound, not an UPPER bound….)

From a White House communications person: How about saying that several lines of evidence suggest that the flow is 12,000 to 19,000 barrels per day but that the rate could be as high as 25,000 barrels per day? (No, because the 25,000 is a LOWER bound, not an UPPER bound…)

PEER’s watchdog work has set off a firestorm inside the White House as well as within the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), an agency that has been widely criticized for its lack of credibility in assessing the damage caused by the spill – from the existence of massive underwater oil plumes to the safety of Gulf seafood. More from Mother Jones:

PEER also filed a complaint against Dr. William Lehr, a scientist at the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) who was the team lead for the FRTG’s plume analysis team. PEER argues that Lehr “manipulated the scientific results” of the team’s experts and understated the spill rate in what it communicated. From PEER’s release on the complaint:

Lehr was leader of one of the most important FRTG teams, the “Plume Team” which analyzed videos of the oil leaks to produce the first estimates. Three of the 13 Plume Team experts used a technique called Particle Image Velocimetry (PIV) to estimate a leak rate in the range of 25,000 bpd. But three other experts on the Plume Team reported that PIV was underestimating the size of the leak by more than 50%. Those three experts used a different technology to correctly peg the leak rate at 50,000 to 60,000 bpd.

Yet Lehr did not tell the public or key decision makers that there was a deep split on the Plume Team. In the Plume Team’s Final Report, the body of which Lehr wrote, he reported that “most of the Plume Team used PIV” which produced “consistent and accurate” estimates. These underestimates were repeated to the public and media.

The government was also criticized for its handling of an August 2010 report on where the oil went, for which Lehr also served as the lead scientist.

These disclosures and allegations are devastating to an Administration that has tried desperately to put this disaster in the rearview mirror. A full investigation should be conducted to identify those who pressured Dr. McNutt and other scientists to lie about the size of the spill. Clearly there was a coverup at the highest levels of our federal government, and those responsible must be held accountable. The American people, particularly those who live on the Gulf Coast, deserve at least that much.

We will stay all over this story and bring you updates as details and reactions emerge.

Here’s the Mother Jones report by Kate Sheppard:

Read Dr. Marcia McNutt’s entire email here: 1_23_12_Email_WH_pressure

Review PEER’s complaint against NOAA scientist Dr. William Lehr, alleging scientific and research misconduct: 1_23_12_BP_Plume_Scientific_misconduct_complaint

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  • Hello my name is Damien and I worked for the Gulfcoast oil spill cleaning up the beachs in Alabama if you would like to know really what went on with the clean up you can contact me by e-mail Thank you.

  • I am very depressed by what I read regarding the misinformation that administration officials made public about extent of the BP oil spill. If we can’t count on our government telling the truth in such an enormously damaging situation then who can we believe?

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