Gulf oil spill response ill-managed, presidential panel says

The White House blocked efforts by federal scientists to tell the public just how bad the Gulf oil spill could have been, according to a panel appointed by the president investigating the disaster.
By Steven Mufson and David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, October 6, 2010; 9:06 PM

A commission set up by President Obama to scrutinize the Gulf of Mexico oil spill has released preliminary reports that say the administration created the impression that it was "either not fully competent" or "not fully candid with the American people about the scope of the problem."

The National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling released four "working papers" Wednesday that said the administration's response was marked by confusion about the spill rate, slowing the federal effort immediately after the oil exploration well blew out April 20.

The commission staff's preliminary papers also said that Obama's Office of Management and Budget later delayed a report by government scientists that would have included a "worst-case" estimate of the rate of the spill, weeks before the government revised its own official estimates upward.

The reports delivered a harsh assessment of the administration's later contention that most of the spill was "gone." They point to comments by Carol M. Browner, Obama's climate and energy czar, who in a television interview mischaracterized a report as saying that three-quarters of the spill had disappeared.

Loss of trust

The White House responded Wednesday by saying that confusion about numbers had not hindered its response to the spill.

The federal effort "was full force and immediate, and the response focused on state and local plans and evolved when needed," National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration head Jane Lubchenco and OMB Acting Director Jeffrey Zients said in a statement.

Moreover, an OMB spokesman said that the agency was not trying to hide the gravity of the spill and that NOAA's report, which was focused on the spill's shore impact, was sent for revisions for reasons having nothing to do with the flow rate.

"The issue was the modeling, the science and the assumptions they were using to come up with their analysis. Not public relations or presentation," said Kenneth Baer, OMB's spokesman. "We offered NOAA suggestions of ways to improve their analysis, and they happily accepted it."

The White House added that senior government officials were publicly clear about how bad the spill might get: "In early May, [Interior Secretary Ken Salazar] and Admiral Thad Allen told the American people that the worst-case scenario could be more than 100,000 barrels a day. In addition, BP reported in 2009 that a blowout of the Deepwater Horizon (MC 252) could yield 162,000 barrels of oil a day."

But transcripts show that Salazar and Allen, who oversaw the government's disaster response, were referring to a more catastrophic type of blowout that never occurred, while BP's 2009 figures were hypothetical and not based on observations after the spill began.

The commission's analysis raises questions about two key promises of the Obama administration - that its response to the spill would reflect its commitments to rigorous science and to government transparency.

"Federal government responders may be correct in stating that low flow-rate estimates did not negatively affect their operations," said one of the commission's working papers. "Even if responders are correct, however, loss of the public's trust during a disaster is not an incidental public relations problem."

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