Gulf oil spill response ill-managed, presidential panel says

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."

The commission suggested that the government was confused about the spill rate from the outset of the disaster. On April 23, the day after the Deepwater Horizon rig sank, Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry told CBS News that "there is not oil emanating from the riser." But the riser, a pipe that connected the rig to the wellhead on the seafloor, had not been inspected at that point, one of the working papers said.

Wrong numbers

Later, as the gravity of the spill became clearer, agencies differed on how to describe it publicly.

The government continued to stand by its April 28 estimate that 5,000 barrels of oil a day were leaking, about one-tenth of the final figure. The commission report said that number was an extremely rough estimate, taken from research by a federal scientist who did not have expertise in gauging deep-sea oil flows.

"The government appears to have taken an overly casual approach to the calculation and release of the 5,000 bbls/day estimate - which, as the only official estimate for most of May, took on great importance," the report said.

"Putting aside the question of whether the public had a right to know the worst-case discharge figures, disclosure of those estimates, and explanation of their role in guiding the government effort, may have improved public confidence in the response," one of the working papers said.

The commission's staff said a West Virginia-based group called SkyTruth, which analyzes satellite data, was the first to publish an independent estimate of the spill's size.

On Wednesday, John Amos, the group's founder, said there are two possible explanations for the government's inaccurate numbers. One, he said, is "that the government was intentionally underestimating it, for whatever reason - versus the possibility that they just didn't really know any better. Those are the two possibilities, and neither one is particularly attractive."

The commission also criticizes Browner for her description of the "oil budget," a method of calculating the fate of the spilled oil. She said that it showed that 75 percent was "now completely gone from the system." NOAA's Lubchenco used a more conservative 50 percent figure.

Both Browner and Lubchenco, however, referred to the August report on the oil's fate as "peer-review led," which the commission staff said probably "contributed to public perception of the budget's findings as more exact and complete" than the budget was designed to be.

Ed Overton, a professor at Louisiana State University, was one of the scientists cited as having been consulted on the government's oil budget. But he said that he did nothing like what academic journals call "peer review," which involves rigorous checking of a final paper.

A separate working paper, "Decision-Making Within the Unified Command," criticized a "lack of regulatory guidance" in legislation for contributing to confusion about the role of the national incident commander.

The report said that "for the first ten days of the spill, it appears that a sense of over-optimism affected responders. Responders almost uniformly noted that, while they understood that they were facing a major spill, they believed that BP would get the well under control."

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