The incredible nerve of Jane Lubchenco


Jane Lubchenco is a little like the monster in a bad horror flick — every time that you think she’s been vanquished, she keeps coming back. Lubchenco was the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, in the aftermath of the BP oil spill. And to the extent that the federal government consistently sided with the British oil giant instead of the American citizens of the Gulf Coast, Lubchenco was there every step of the way.

In those chaotic and frightening days after the Deepwater Horizon spill, when this blog was in its infancy, we chronicled a number of regrettable actions involving her stewardship of NOAA, a vitally important environmental agency. It started when the agency actually sided with BP on its ridiculous low-ball estimates of the amount of oil that was pouring out of the heavily damaged rig — a lie that later became a centerpiece of the federal investigation of BP. That was just the beginning.

Within weeks, NOAA and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency were supporting BP’s plan to make the oil disappear by spraying 1.8 millions of the highly toxic dispersant Corexit — a poison that continues to wreak havoc in the Gulf four years later. (Lubchenco had the gall to later suggest that Corexit was perfectly safe to spray on an oil spill in the fragile Arctic.)

There were other scandals surrounding Lubchenco’s tenure at the agency, including a document-shredding party in New England to hide NOAA’s policies regarding small fishermen in that region. But one of the worst things that Lubchenco’s NOAA was involved in was the quashing of efforts by independent scientists to study the impact of the Deepwater Horizon disaster in real time.

Last year, a report by Paul Sammarco of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium found numerous problems in the water samples collected by NOAA after the spill, and he based his findings on samples collected by independent scientists working for me and my law firm. When the Louisiana environmental activist Marylee Orr finally gained access to the spill cleanup command center, she saw that BP — and not NOAA or the EPA — was running the show. That would explain why federal agents tried to stymie sample collecting and other key scientific research at every turn.

Today, scientists are still struggling to come to terms with the environmental catastrophe in the Gulf. This week, a number of them gathered in Mobile for a national conference to share papers and research on the BP spill. You won’t believe who one of the speakers was…or what she had to say:

Panelists at the conference, being held in Mobile, Ala., said they also need to create a better way for academic scientists, government agencies and oil and gas industry officials to work together.

“Building relationships, creating trust, creating understanding to different perspectives and different cultures is really critical, so mechanisms to do that are highly desirable,” said Jane Lubchenco, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. She was a NOAA marine ecologist at the time of the spill.

Lubchenco noted that there were “insufficient funds for independent academic research” during the spill, in part because efforts were more focused on the immediate response.

To prepare for future environmental disasters, she recommended developing “mechanisms for very rapid peer review (of scientific findings by the scientific community) during a crisis,” for “more rapid funds” available for that scientific research, and for “better ongoing communications between academic scientists and government scientists.”

To say that this took some nerve would be a gross understatement. Anyone who was actually in Louisiana in 2010 knows that Lubchenco and NOAA were key members of a faction that blocked everything she was suddenly advocating — independent research, and a collegial atmosphere between university scientists and the government. There were no impediments to this four years ago other than the actions of Lubchenco and other bureaucrats who were favoring BP.

No one should believe a word that Lubchenco said. Here’s the reality: Government regulators are probably going to side with Big Oil in future accidents — just like they were biased in favor of BP. The key lesson for independent scientists in the next spill will probably not be how to work with the Jane Lubchencos of the world…but how to get around them.

Here’s the report on Lubchenco’s speech to this week’s scientific conference in Mobile:

To read my earlier reporting from 2011 about the mismanagement by Jane Lubchenco at NOAA, please read:

Check out my 2013 blog post about Lubchenco’s support for Corexit in the Arctic: 

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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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