Lawsuit seeks answers to why Obama Administration officials lowballed BP oil blowout estimates

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The Obama administration is hiding the memos and e-mails behind official scientific assessments of the size of the massive BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, according to a lawsuit filed September 16 by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).  PEER notes that estimates of the leak rate rose five-fold amid reports that political appointees sought to lowball the size of the spill.Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility “is a national non-profit alliance of local, state and federal scientists, law enforcement officers, land managers and other professionals dedicated to upholding environmental laws and values…As a service organization assisting federal and state public employees, PEER allows public servants to work as ‘anonymous activists’ so that agencies must confront the message, rather than the messenger.”

I won’t attempt to pre-judge this lawsuit, but I strongly support PEER’s role as a champion of this kind of action. I believe whistleblowing and bringing to light otherwise-hidden inside sources of information and documentation are among the essential modes of citizen activism and public service in countering the abuse of both governmental and corporate power.

From PEER’s September 16 press release (“LAWSUIT TO UNRAVEL VARYING BP SPILL ESTIMATES — Paper Trail Explaining Starkly Different Leak Rate Numbers Yet to Surface”):

…The controversy concerns the National Incident Command’s Flow Rate Technical Group which, among other tasks, was charged with developing an independent estimate of the amount of oil flowing from BP’s leaking oil well.  Marcia McNutt, Director of the Interior Department’s U.S. Geological Survey, chaired the Technical Group.  On May 27 2010, Dr. McNutt issued a public statement that the “Best Estimate” range of flow rates was between 12,000 to 19,000 barrels per day (bpd) but she –

•  Omitted the fact that these were minimum estimates (deleting phrases such as “at least” and “range of lower bounds”) and did not mention completed estimates that were much higher.  Significantly, the Technical Group was supposed to look at worst-case, catastrophic scenarios to help gauge needed resources and tactics for spill response;
•  Withheld the actual technical report and instead released only a summary that she wrote; and
•  Directed that none of the Technical Group documents was subject to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and that group members should not disclose any materials.

Ultimately, the oil leak rate has been measured in the new well cap system to be 55,000 bpd, a daily flow rate that had diminished over time, starting at about 62,000 bpd.  These numbers were much higher than the previously released figures – a disparity that has yet to be explained.

On July 6, 2010, PEER requested the release of all of the Technical Group papers, including directives from Dr. McNutt and other Interior political appointees but virtually none of these materials has been released.  Today, PEER filed suit in federal district court in Washington, D.C. claiming that hundreds of pages of reports and communications are being withheld in violation of FOIA.

“This lawsuit will produce Exhibit A for the case that science is still being manipulated under the current administration,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that promised scientific integrity safeguards which would have prevented or exposed political interference in this arena are still not in place more than a year after the deadline imposed by President Obama.  “Our concern is that the administration took, and is still taking, steps to falsely minimize public perception about the extent and severity of the BP spill – a concern that the administration could start to dispel by releasing these documents.”

A similar controversy is brewing about the “Oil Budget” released by the administration which estimates that 75% of the BP oil spill has dissipated or been removed but the scientific methodology, let alone the actual studies, behind this conclusion has yet to be disclosed.

Also see PEER’s July 8 statement, “OBAMA’S ORPHANED SCIENCE INTEGRITY AND TRANSPARENCY PLEDGE — Promised Rules for Scientific Whistleblowers One Year Overdue and Counting,” which includes this:

The muddled federal response to the massive BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico illustrates a lack of scientific transparency and candor in agency decision-making. Key examples include –

•  Without any scientific undergirding, EPA approved widespread application of oil dispersants deep underwater, despite the fact that these chemicals were designed for surface application. EPA even lacked baseline information about oil droplet size, the information it would need to measure just how effective the dispersant is at breaking up the oil slicks;
•  The National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration has flip-flopped on release of scientific observations about the size and nature of swelling underwater oil plumes; and
•  EPA also lacks information about dioxin and other toxic byproducts of burning large expanses of oil in the Gulf.

“The BP spill shows Obama officials displaying scientific opacity, not transparency in futile attempts at damage control and news management,” Ruch added. “The Obama White House is seemingly so devoted to message control that it cannot tolerate discordant, off-message transparency.”

Also see the September 16 post, “Whistleblower Group Sues To Find Out Why Administration Lowballed BP Oil Spill Estimates,” by Huffington Post reporter Dan Froomkin, which includes this:

A similar mystery to that which surrounds the flow rate estimates involves the administration’s public release in early August of a report based on an internal “oil budget calculator” that had been put together in a hurry and solely to provide general guidance to the emergency response.

Instead, the report was released with great fanfare, media appearances and a White House press conference—and top administration officials cited its conclusions as evidence that “the vast majority of the oil is gone”.

But the report was sketchy at best. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has consistently refused to disclose supporting documents. Officials falsely gave the impression that a group of eminent scientists had peer-reviewed the report, when they hadn’t even seen it….

In its complaint against the USGS, PEER notes that after its initial request, USGS did start posting some internal documents that were “partially responsive” on its website….

Several documents show administration officials consulting each other regarding the best way to duck questions from reporters—one of those reporters being me.

In early August, I e-mailed one official whose name appeared on the “oil budget” report, asking for the supporting documentation.

“People are still finding the document where my email is unfortunately permanently etched and asking questions,” wrote USGS official Sky Bristol. “This one is from a reporter with the Huffington Post. I answered his basic logistical question about the material already posted online, and I would like to just use the basic statement (slightly modified from the earlier version) I sent earlier as a canned response about this effort. Do you have any problem with me going ahead and sending this, or should I put him off? Thank you.”

As it happens, she just put me off entirely.

It looks like the Obama Administration, and no doubt some senior career federal managers whose approach is to cover up problems and hide from oversight, have some government accountability matters to account for.

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