White House officials blocked early release of information on oil spill’s severity


Members of President Barack Obama’s administration blocked an attempt by government scientists to release worst-case estimates of the volume of oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico in the early days of the Deepwater Horizon spill, according to a draft report by a federal commission.

The National Commission on the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling also suggests that Cabinet-level officials “created a misleading impression” when they said in August that a large majority of the oil was gone from the Gulf.

Such missteps led the public to think that the government was “either not fully competent to handle the spill or not fully candid with the American people about the scope of the problem,” according to the report made public Wednesday in Washington, D.C.

That loss of public trust, the report suggests, left people to wonder about the safety of everything from eating seafood to swimming in the Gulf.

Obama created the commission to investigate the oil spill and ensuing federal response.

Its report references two Press-Register articles in demonstrating that federal officials knew how big the spill might be long before they released the worst-case scenario to the public.

For more than a month after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on April 20, federal officials insisted that the leak was between 1,000 and 5,000 barrels daily.

The Press-Register articles, published on April 30 and May 1, detailed a confidential government document and a video from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Seattle war room suggesting the spill might be as large as 64,000 to 100,000 barrels a day.

Federal officials did not publicly acknowledge that the well was releasing around 60,000 barrels a day — or 2.5 million gallons — until June 15, according to the commission report.

“In late April or early May 2010, NOAA wanted to make public some of its long-term, worst-case” estimates, the report says. “Staff was told that the Office of Management and Budget denied NOAA’s request.”

The report goes on to conclude “the national response may have benefited from a greater sense of urgency” had those estimates been officially released.

On Wednesday, Jane Lubchenco, head of NOAA, and acting Office of Management and Budget Director Jeffrey Zients issued a statement rebutting some of the commission findings.

The statement says “senior government officials were clear with the public” by early May that a worst-case spill could be more than 100,000 barrels a day.

It cites as further proof a spill response plan referenced in BP PLC’s 2009 drilling permit that suggests a worst-case spill could be more than 100,000 barrels a day.

The online version of the statement includes a link that directs the public not to a federal website, but to al.com, where the Press-Register posted that document to accompany its reporting.

The statement does not specifically address whether the White House blocked release of worst-case spill estimates. “The facts bear out that the federal response significantly mitigated the impact of the spill,” the statement read.

The report criticizes Lubchenco and Carol Browner, head of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy, for suggesting on Aug. 4 that most of the oil had disappeared from the Gulf in the three weeks after the spill was contained. Both made the statements based on the federal “Gulf Incident Oil Budget,” released that day.

“I think it’s also important to note that our scientists have done an initial assessment, and more than three-quarters of the oil is gone. The vast majority of the oil is gone,” the commission report quoted from Browner’s appearance on NBC’s “Today” show that morning.

Browner and Lubchenco emphasized the Oil Budget report was peer-reviewed by federal and non-federal scientists, but in reality no such formal review took place, according to the commission report.

Statements by Lubchenco and Browner “were inaccurate and led to news reports that were misleading” the report says. It goes on to conclude that the question of whether the oil “is gone or still lingering below the surface remains unclear.”

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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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