"Not Fully Competent" or "Not Fully Candid": Administration Disappoints on Oil Spill Science

Several news outlets have reported that the commission appointed by President Obama to study the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill has issued preliminary reports that are sharply critical of the Obama administration's handling of the disaster. I downloaded the commission's draft working paper "The Amount and Fate of the Oil" to see how they described the federal response.

The report doesn't paint a flattering picture of the Obama administration's approach to a scientific question of national importance.

The draft report is written by the commission staff, who recommend specific questions and issues for the commission members to consider. Here's their summary of the federal government's performance with regards to informing the press and the public about the amount of oil spilling into the Gulf:

By initially underestimating the amount of oil flow and then, at the end of the summer, appearing to underestimate the amount of oil remaining in the Gulf, the federal government created the impression that it was either not fully competent to handle the spill or not fully candid with the American people about the scope of the problem.

Low Flow Estimates
For several weeks after the deadly explosion, government officials speaking to the press gave low estimates of the leak's flow rate, while non-governmental scientists gave higher estimates. We now know those higher estimates were much more accurate.

On the federal side, initial estimates came from the Coast Guard and NOAA; after several more weeks, an inter-agency group started reporting higher numbers based on closer study:

  • April 24: up to 1,000 bbls/day (Coast Guard and BP)
  • April 28: as much as 5,000 bbls/day (NOAA)
  • May 27: 12,000 - 25,000 bbls/day (inter-agency Flow Rate Technical Group)
  • June 10: 20,000 - 40,000 bbls/day (Flow Rate Group)
  • June 15: 35,000 - 60,000 bbls/day (Flow Rate Group in conjunction with Secretary of Energy Steven Chu and Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar)
  • August 2: 52,700 - 62,200 bbls/day (Flow Rate Group with Secretary Chu's team)

At the same time, the report notes that independent scientists were generating other estimates, and until the federal Flow Rate Group's May 27th estimate (more than a month after the rig first exploded), the independent estimates were closer to the current estimate (the August 2nd figure).

The descriptions of how the independent scientists arrived at their estimates are on pages 5-7 of the report and make for interesting reading, but what I found most striking was the contrast the report draws between federal and independent methodologies in the first weeks following the spill. On April 27th and May 1st, two independent scientists -- John Amos of Skytruth.org and Ian MacDonald of Florida State University -- published estimates that were based on the appearance of the surface oil. At 5,000 - 20,000 bbls/day (Amos) and 26,500 bbls/day (MacDonald), the estimates were still well below the actual flow rate, but they were closer than the government's estimate of up to 5,000 bbls/day -- and, the commission staff notes:

... the non-government scientists appeared to make greater efforts to be clear and rigorous in their methodologies.

So, you may wonder, how did NOAA come up with the 5,000 bbls/day flow rate estimate, which for an entire month was the only federal-government estimate? As far as the commission staff can tell, it's from an unsolicited email from a NOAA scientist, who wanted to warn government officials that their 1,000 bbls/day estimate was far too low. He made his assumptions clear and explained that his figure was a "very rough estimate."

At this point, one or more of the federal agencies might have decided that it was time to put some resources into getting an accurate number -- but from what the commission staff reports, it evidently took officials three weeks to reach that conclusion. The Unified Command "spearheaded the creation of an inter-agency Flow Rate Technical Group" (headed by US Geological Survey Director and Science Advisor to the Secretary of the Interior Marcia McNutt) on May 19th. The report suggests it would've been helpful for the federal government to have moved more quickly:

It is possible that the early official flow estimates would have been more accurate if the government had either enlisted greater in-house scientific expertise, or enlisted outside scientific expertise by making available the data on which government estimates were based. 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 Number Driving Response Operations
One of the important questions regarding the oil flow rate is whether a low estimate caused the response to fall short. The commission staff concludes, "Front-line responders may have based their decision-making on estimates roughly reflecting the magnitude of the spill." Here's what they were apparently working from:

Soon after the spill began, frontline Coast Guard personnel requested worst-case discharge information from the Minerals Management Service and BP, both of which reported a figure of 162,000 bbls/day (the worst-case estimate from BP's original drilling permit). A high-level official, however, told us that the Coast Guard did not believe the figure from the drilling plan was a credible worst-case estimate. On April 23, 2010, the Coast Guard and NOAA received an updated estimate of 64,000-110,000 bbls/day, which appeared in both an internal Coast Guard Situation Report and on a dry-erase board in the NOAA Seattle war room. By early May, BP had lowered its worst-case estimate to 60,000 bbls/day. BP officials disclosed a similar estimate to Congress on May 4, 2010, stating during a briefing that the "maximum estimated flow would be 60,000 barrels a day, with a mid-range estimate of 40,000 barrels a day . . . ."

The report states in a footnote, "The refined worst-case figure apparently came from either the Minerals Management Service or BP, though its origin and the methodology underlying it have not been established." In any case, the government didn't disclose the figures informing its operational response; the blueprint for responders was that "while 1,000 or 5,000 bbls/day were the official best flow-rate estimates, the government was scaling the response to an unquantified worst-case scenario."

It's hard for me to see this as anything other than a political decision to withhold information from the public - by an administration that claims to value transparency.

And I found this paragraph particularly distressing:

The Commission staff has also been advised that, in late April or early May 2010, NOAA 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.

During the Bush administration, we critiqued the suppression and distortion of science (on climate change and other issues) by White House officials and other political appointees. Are we seeing the same thing happening in the Obama administration? On the day the commission released this report, NPR's Air Shapiro told Robert Siegel during an All Things Considered segment:

Now, today, I've been talking with some scientists who basically spent the eight years of the Bush administration riling against what they saw as science taking a backseat to politics. They're very frustrated by this whole incident. They see it as evidence that the Obama administration has failed to live up to its promise of an evidence-based approach to problem-solving.

OMB spokesperson Kenneth Baer told the Associated Press that concerns about NOAA estimates' reliability were responsible for the holdup. (I wonder where this concern for scientific reliability was when the 5,000 bbl/estimate came out -- did NOAA not run that one by OMB before releasing it?) I hope the Commission follows up on this issue and sheds some light on whether there was any scientific justification for OMB quashing the publicizing of NOAA's discharge models.

Regardless of what additional findings the Oil Spill Commission might bring to light, this report makes it clear that the Obama administration's response to the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster harmed the public's trust in government. A lack of trust has implications beyond the president's poll numbers, as the report reminds us:

The absence of trust fuels public fears, and those fears in turn can cause major harm, whether because the public loses confidence in the federal government's assurances that beaches or seafood are safe, or because the government's lack of credibility makes it harder to build relationships with state and local officials, as well as community leaders, that are necessary for effective response actions.

The administration failed to pursue a rigorous, science-based spill estimate promptly, and it let the public and press keep referring to an oil flow estimate that officials knew to be far too low. It refused to let NOAA make public models that might have helped us grasp the scope and implications of the disaster. This isn't reassuring to those of us who hoped the Obama administration would improve transparency and scientific integrity.

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Thanks for taking the time to read the Commission's report and for bringing these issues of transparency (or lack thereof) to TPH readers.

By Celeste Monforton (not verified) on 13 Oct 2010 #permalink

Is there a special reason why no physicians were appointed to a panel which must ultimately make recommendations invlving human health?

Thanks for this excellent post.

Terrific blog. Makes you wonder why Dr. Holdren can't get his act together to issue science integrity guidelines (as in "don't interfere with government scientists' independent work") promised at the beginning of the Administration.

For those interested, Carol Browner's announcement on that 75 percent of the oil is "gone" also comes in for skewering.

Thanks, Liz, I know what a loabor it is to read thesereports.

Rena Steinzor
University of Maryland Law School

By Rena Steinzor (not verified) on 15 Oct 2010 #permalink

"August 2: 52,700 - 62,2000 bbls/day (Flow Rate Group with Secretary Chu's team)" That's a 0 too many!

By rijkswaanvijand (not verified) on 16 Oct 2010 #permalink

No surprise. Government: incompetent all the time. The trend will never change regardless of who is in power.

Liz's summary is quote accurate. However, as disturbing as the Obama Administration's downplaying the effects of the spill and their withholding of scientific information is, it is unfortunately part of an ongoing problem. In my new book, Disaster Culture: Knowledge and Uncertainty in the Wake of Human and Environmental Catastrophe (Left Coast Press) http://www.octaviabooks.com/event/disaster-culture-gregory-button I explore this in great depth.

By Gregory Button (not verified) on 18 Oct 2010 #permalink