WASHINGTON — Government scientists wanted to tell Americans early on how bad the BP oil spill could get, but the White House denied their request to make the worst-case models public, a report by the staff of the national panel investigating the spill said Wednesday.
White House officials denied that they tried to suppress the information.
The allegation was made by unnamed government officials cited in a staff working paper released Wednesday by the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling. Although not a final report, it could raise questions over whether the Obama administration tried to minimize the extent of the BP oil spill, the worst man-made environmental disaster in U.S. history.
The staff paper said that underestimating the flow rates "undermined public confidence in the federal government's response" by creating the impression that the government was either incompetent or untrustworthy. The paper said that the loss of trust "fuels public fears."
In a separate report, the commission's staff concluded that despite the Coast Guard's insistence that it was always responding to the worst-case scenario, the failure to have an accurate flow rate slowed the response and lulled Obama administration officials into a false belief that the spill would be controlled easily.
The first report said that the "decision to withhold worst-case discharge figures" may have been made at a high level. It said that in late April or early May, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration "wanted to make public some of its long-term, worst-case discharge models for the Deepwater Horizon spill, and requested approval to do so from the White House's Office of Management and Budget. Staff was told that the Office of Management and Budget denied NOAA's request."
A joint statement from OMB and NOAA released Wednesday said that OMB had been tapped "to coordinate and review all interagency materials developed in response to the BP oil spill."
OMB spokesman Kenneth Baer said that the discussions between OMB and NOAA weren't focused on the flow rate but dealt more broadly with NOAA's modeling for the spill's long-term shoreline impact. Baer said that OMB made no attempt to shield the public from the worst-case flow rate scenario.
"The issue was the modeling, the science and the assumptions they were using to come up with their analysis. Not public relations or presentation. We offered them suggestions of ways to improve it and they happily accepted it," Baer said.
But the oil flow rate was part of those models.
Baer also noted that officials in some instances talked about a possible 100,000-barrel worst-case daily amount.
The commission said in a statement that it didn't consider the government's response a contradiction of its report.
The government's final estimate, on Aug. 2, was that 62,000 barrels a day leaked in the early period, but that flow declined to 53,000 barrels a day by the time the well was capped on July 15.
The report noted that retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the government's top official on the disaster, and other officials said in news conferences that the government prepared for a worst-case scenario from the beginning and didn't base decisions about what equipment would be needed on the early estimates of 1,000 to 5,000 barrels a day.
However, it said, the government withheld the figures of what "worst-case" meant.
The second report noted it was only after NOAA determined that the flow rate was five times what BP had first estimated that the Obama administration declared the spill an incident of national significance.
"For the first 10 days of the spill, it appears that a sense of over-optimism affected responders," the second report said. "At least one high-level Coast Guard official thought that the oil would not come ashore."
In other contexts, Allen and other officials did elaborate on what that figure roughly meant. Allen told reporters on May 2 that the oil flow could reach 100,000 barrels a day if the well completely failed — something that never happened.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on the same day told CNN that a worst-case scenario would be 100,000 barrels a day.
The government all along had BP's estimates of what a worse-case scenario would be, but never disclosed them to the public, the report said. BP's drilling permit put it at 162,000 barrels a day.
On April 23, the Coast Guard and NOAA got an updated estimate of 64,000 to 110,000 barrels a day, but it's unclear whether that information was from BP or how it was derived, the report said. By early May, BP lowered its worst-case estimate to 60,000 barrels a day, the report said.
That figure was close to what government scientists later determined was the best estimate for the actual flow. Therefore, the government oil-spill response team may have been basing its decisionmaking on a good estimate, the report noted.
But it added that "despite the fact that the Unified Command had this information, relied on it for operations, and publicly stated that it was operating under a worst-case scenario, the government never disclosed what its operational scenario was."
The documents also criticize Carol Browner, director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy, saying that during a series of morning-show appearances on Aug. 4, she misrepresented the findings of a federal analysis of where the oil went and incorrectly portrayed it as a scientific assessment that was peer-reviewed by inside and outside experts.
"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," Browner said on NBC's Today show.
But the analysis never said it was gone, according to the commission. It said it was dispersed, dissolved or evaporated — meaning it could still be there. And while NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco was more cautious in her remarks at a news conference at the White House later that day, the commission staff accuses the two senior officials of contributing to the perception that the government's findings were more exact than they actually were.
Florida State University professor Ian MacDonald, who has repeatedly clashed with NOAA and the Coast Guard over the size of the spill, the existence of underwater plumes and oil in the sea floor, said he felt gratified by the report.
From the beginning, there was "a contradiction between discoveries and concerns by academic scientists and statements by NOAA," MacDonald said in St. Petersburg at a scientific conference on the oil spill.
And he said it is still going on. MacDonald and Georgia Tech scientist Joseph Montoya said NOAA is at it again with statements saying there is no oil in ocean floor sediments. A University of Georgia science cruise, which Montoya was on, found ample evidence of oil on the gulf floor.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.