White House misconstrued scientists' position on drilling moratorium, report finds

By Dina Cappiello
Associated Press
Wednesday, November 10, 2010; 9:30 PM

The oil spill that damaged the Gulf of Mexico's reefs and wetlands is also threatening to stain the Obama administration's reputation for relying on science to guide policy.

Academics, environmentalists and federal investigators have accused the administration since the April spill of downplaying scientific findings, misrepresenting data and, most recently, misconstruing the opinions of experts it solicited.

The latest complaint comes in a report by the Interior Department's inspector general, which concluded that the White House edited a drilling safety report in a way that made it falsely appear that scientists and experts backed the administration's six-month moratorium on new deep-water drilling. The Associated Press obtained the report Wednesday.

The inspector general said the editing changes by the White House resulted "in the implication that the moratorium recommendation had been peer reviewed." But it hadn't been. Outside scientists were asked only to review new safety measures for offshore drilling.

"There are really only a few people that know what they are talking about" on offshore drilling," said Ford Brett, managing director of Petroskills, a Tulsa, Okla.-based training organization. "The people who make this policy do not . . . so don't misrepresent me and use me for cover," said Brett, one of seven experts who reviewed the report.

The White House insisted that the review was properly coordinated and pointed to the inspector general's findings.

"Following a review that included interviews with peer review experts, the Inspector General found no intentional misrepresentation of their views. . . . The decision to implement a six-month moratorium on deep-water drilling in the Gulf of Mexico was correctly based on the need for adequate spill response, well containment and safety measures, and we stand behind that decision," White House deputy press secretary Bill Burton said in a statement.

Last month, staff for the presidential oil spill commission said that the White House's budget office delayed publication of a scientific report that forecast how much oil could reach the Gulf's shores. Federal scientists initially used a volume of oil that did not account for the administration's various cleanup efforts, but the government ultimately cited smaller amounts of oil.

The same report said that President Obama's energy adviser, Carol Browner, mischaracterized on national TV a government analysis about where the oil went, saying it showed most of the oil was "gone." The report said it could still be there. It also said that by emphasizing peer review, Browner and the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Jane Lubchenco, contributed to the public's perception that the report was more exact than it was.

The new inspector general report said that Browner's staff implied scientists had endorsed the moratorium by raising a reference to peer review in the drilling safety report. At least one outside expert who was involved said he was convinced afterward that it wasn't a deliberate deception, and Interior Department officials told the inspector general that they didn't deliberately make changes to cause confusion.

"There was no intent to mislead the public," said Kendra Barkoff, a spokeswoman for Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who also recommended a moratorium in the May 27 safety report.

After one of the reviewers complained, the Interior Department promptly issued an apology during a conference call, in a formal letter and during a personal meeting in June.

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