NOAA on the BP oil blowout: Is this any way to communicate science?

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NASA photo of the Mississippi Delta after the BP Deepwater Horizon blowout, May 24, 2010

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s science communication fiasco over the amount and fate of the runaway oil spill into the Gulf of Mexico following the BP Deepwater Horizon blowout presented an important object lesson: the Obama administration “tried to bamboozle the American press and public by spinning the science, and failed in the end,” says free-lance journalist Joseph A. Davis. In an extensively-sourced CSW guest column, Davis tells a story that raises issues of concern about the Obama White House and about an agency that plays a vital role in climate science and climate change communication.

Prologue

The Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media reported on October 21 ("Lubchenco Challenged on Release By White House of Gulf Spill Pie Chart,” excerpt):

A riveting Friday afternoon plenary [at the Society of Environmental Journalists annual meeting], “Lessons from the Gulf,” became most interesting during the question-and-answer period, when freelance journalist Joe Davis challenged National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Administrator Jane Lubchenco concerning a pie chart that had been used during an August 4th White House press briefing on developments in the BP Gulf of Mexico crisis.

The chart was part of a scientific paper that had been released before it had been peer-reviewed. Lubchenco said in that briefing that “at least 50 percent of the oil that was released is now completely gone from the system. And most of the remainder is degrading rapidly or is being removed from the beaches.”

Davis took issue with the administration’s decision to release a report before it had been peer reviewed, and then using that as an excuse to not provide the data behind it. “Is this a way to release scientific findings?” he asked….

NOAA on the BP Gulf oil blowout: Is this any way to communicate science?

By Joseph A. Davis

How the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) does science is a key to the integrity of climate science. Even more important, perhaps, is how NOAA reacts to White House pressure on the interpretation of its science, and how it commmunicates the science it does.

That's why a NOAA-related science communication fiasco over the amount and fate of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico by the BP Deepwater Horizon blowout was so important – and the object lesson it may have presented. The lesson: spinning the science may give the administration a bigger black eye than the one they were trying to prevent.

In an August 4 news blitz, coming on the heels of a successful "static kill" of the blown out and runaway Deepwater Horizon well in the Gulf, the Obama administration gathered its collective credibility, pushed NOAA front and center, and declared 3/4 of the oil in the Gulf "gone."

The narrative -- if only people had believed it -- was one that promised instant relief for the nagging political headache that plagued the administration (the unfair phrase "Obama's Katrina" was favored by Republicans) ever since the April 20 blowout and fire.

Early Signs of Trouble

From the start, estimates of how much oil was spewing from the broken well nearly a mile below the surface were dubious. The Obama administration's communications on the Deepwater Horizon operations were largely channeled through the "Unified Command" -- which was eventually headed by now-retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen. The Unified Command not only drew together the efforts of the various federal agencies responding to the spill, but also those of the BP company.

BP, of course, had a business interest in minimizing the estimates of how much oil was spilling into the Gulf, since they would pay damages proportionate to that number.

Little surprise, then, that the earliest estimate was that 1,000 barrels per day were flowing from the blown out well. That estimate was put out in the earliest days of the spill -- around April 25 -- in a press conference that was held jointly by the Coast Guard and BP.

That original 1,000 barrel figure, according to the Oil Spill Commission, apparently originated from BP without any supporting data or documentation, and was accepted and publicized by the Coast Guard.

NOAA gets some credit, according to the Oil Spill Commission, for raising the estimate to 5,000 barrels/day a week later. But that was still a drastic underestimate of the actual flow. Soon NOAA was requesting permission to release a much higher "worst case" figure of 64,000-110,000 barrels/day. But the White House Office of Management and Budget, the Oil Spill Commission was told, denied the request.

By that time, if the reports are true, NOAA was transformed into an Obama administration team player, whose scientific judgment was being filtered through the quasi-military Unified Command and the politically controlled Office of Management and Budget.

August 4: The Roll-Out of "Most Oil Is Gone"

Everybody was happy when a new, tighter containment cap stopped most oil flow into the Gulf around July 15-17, and even more so when the "static kill" seemed to finally end the crisis around August 4. It was, perhaps, a time for the battered administration to celebrate a victory.

After more than two weeks of almost no flow, less oil was apparent on the Gulf surface. There was considerable evidence that much oil was still in coastal wetlands, buried in coastal sands, and lurking beneath the surface where dispersants had left it in huge submerged plumes.

In fact, the fate of much of the oil was still an open question. But the White House seemed eager to put the incident in the past. Then on August 4, before most reporters even knew a "scientific report" was forthcoming, White House climate/energy czar Carol Browner went on the morning talk shows to announce the conclusion that 3/4 of the oil was "gone." Browner's spin on the fate of the oil had already been broadcast as a wire-service headline by the time the actual press conference releasing the actual report took place in mid-day.

NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco appeared at the 1:20 pm EDT briefing along with Browner, Allen, and White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs. This was when the paper known as the "oil budget," or to some as the "pie chart" was first officially released.

NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco presenting the "oil budget" on August 4. (AP photo/Charles Dharapak)

At that briefing, Lubchenco referred to it as "scientific analysis" and said: "The report was produced by scientific experts from a number of different agencies, federal agencies, with peer review of the calculations that went into this by both other federal and non-federal scientists. The conclusions -- key conclusions of the report is that the vast majority of the oil has either evaporated or been burned, skimmed and recovered from the wellhead, or dispersed.  And much of the dispersed oil is in the process of relatively rapid degradation."

But Lubchenco's take on the budget differed subtly from Browner's blunt statement that 3/4 of the oil was "gone." It allowed for the likelihood that the dispersed oil was still there ... somewhere. Only a handful of media outlets took note of the difference or handled the story skeptically. For the most part, the "oil is gone" story dominated an entire 24-hour news cycle.

The Skeptical Aftershocks and Repudiation

It wasn't until later -- when reporters and congressional staff had had time to read the oil budget, examine what it was based on, ask questions, and not get very full answers -- that the Obama administration's story began to fall apart.

It turned out that only about a quarter of the oil could be considered "gone" from the Gulf system. Most of the remaining 3/4 was really just out of sight and unaccounted for.

It turned out that some of the scientists who had been credited with producing the report had barely seen it or been consulted. And that many of the scientists who had supposedly "peer reviewed" the report had not in fact done so.

Then on August 19, at a hearing of a House Energy subcommittee, Bill Lehr, one of the top NOAA scientists who was supposed to have been responsible for the report, repudiated in a low-key scientific way, the conclusions ("3/4 gone") forced on the report by the White House. Lehr's testimony came along with many other doubts expressed from sources outside the White House and the government. Finally, reporters "got" it, and there followed an outburst of stories discrediting the headlines of two weeks earlier.

NOAA Office of Response and Restoration Senior Scientist Bill Lehr testifies about the oil spilled in the Gulf of Mexico by the BP Deepwater Horizon spill before the House Energy and Environment subcommittee (Getty Images).

One of the most amazing revelations at the August 19 hearing was that the federal government -- and that meant in large part NOAA -- was refusing to release to the public the formulas, models, scientific citations, and data on which its eagerly trumpeted conclusions were based. Pressed by subcommittee Chairman Ed Markey (D-MA), Lehr said NOAA would not release the formulas and data even to the subcommittee -- because they had not yet been peer-reviewed. So after having declared its confidence in the August 4 conclusions because -- it claimed, falsely, as it later turned out -- they had been peer-reviewed, NOAA was now refusing to allow independent review of the basis for its conclusions on the grounds that that basis had NOT been peer reviewed. It was a scientific Catch-22 -- one for the Journal of Irreproducible Results.

What was most amazing is that NOAA -- whether represented by Lehr or by Lubchenco herself -- acted as if it were not embarassed by its profound and self-contradictory hypocrisy about peer review.

After failing to get Lehr to disclose the basis for the administration's oil budget, Markey said: "You shouldn't have released it until you knew it was right."

Oil Spill Commission Critique

The Markey critique of the Obama administration's oil budget -- or more precisely the way the administration had presented and spun its oil budget -- was only reinforced two months later when the Oil Spill Commission that had been appointed by the president himself revealed further details of how the science information had been handled.

A draft staff working paper released by the commission on October 6 stated the following:

"The federal government’s estimates of the amount of oil flowing into and later remaining in the Gulf of Mexico in the aftermath of the Macondo well explosion were the source of significant controversy, which undermined public confidence in the federal government's response to the spill. 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."

 

LINKS TO SOURCES

Early Signs of Trouble

-- "Update 8," Release of April 25, 2010, Deepwater Horizon Unified Command

-- "NOAA Hoarding Key Data On Oil Spill Damage," Huffington Post, July 7, 2010, by Dan Froomkin

August 4: The Roll-Out of “Most Oil is Gone”

-- Video sample from August 4, 2010, appearance of Carol Browner on Fox News

-- AP report of Carol Browner's appearance on morning talk shows, August 4, 2010

-- Reuters report of Carol Browner's appearance on morning talk shows, August 4, 2010,

-- "Federal Science Report Details Fate of Oil From BP Spill," NOAA press release, August 4, 2010

-- Text of report: "BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Budget: What Happened To the Oil?" National Incident Command, August 4, 2010

-- Transcript of White House press briefing on August 4, 2010, on "Inter-Agency Oil Budget Report," with Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, Admiral Thad Allen, Carol Browner, and Dr. Lubchenco

-- "U.S. Finds Most Oil From Spill Poses Little Additional Risk," New York Times, August 4, 2010, by Justin Gillis

-- "Risky Business: Times Jumps the Gun, Irresponsibly Dismisses Threat of Remaining Oil," The Observatory, Columbia Journalism Review, August 4, 2010, by Curtis Brainard

-- "Oil Spill Calculations Stir Debate on Damage," New York Times, August 4, 2010, by Justin Gillis and Leslie Kaufman

-- "Looking for the Oil? NOAA Says It's Mostly Gone," Associated Press, August 4, 2010, by Seth Borenstein

-- "Obama Team's Gulf Gusher Report Draws Skepticism," NPR's The Two-Way, August 4, 2010, by Frank James

-- "Scientists Skeptical of Obama Claims BP's Spill Doesn't Threat Gulf," McClatchy Newspapers, August 4, 2010, by Erika Bolstad, Renee Schoof, and Margaret Talev

-- "Administration Overly Optimistic About Fate of Spilled Oil (VIDEO)," Huffington Post, August 4, 2010, by Dan Froomkin

The Skeptical Aftershocks and Repudiation

-- "Markey: BP Must Own Up to Flow Rate Number, Compensate the Gulf," House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, Press Release of August 11, 2010

-- "Scientists Say Gulf Oil To Linger, Obama's Estimates Rosy," McClatchy Newspapers, August 19, 2010, by Shashank Bengali

-- "BP Oil Spill: US Scientist Retracts Assurances Over Success of Cleanup," Guardian, August 19, 2010, by Suzanne Goldenberg

-- "Markey Says Report That Most Oil Is Gone Has Led To 'False Confidence'," Huffington Post, August 19, 2010, by Dan Froomkin

-- "Ummm, About That Disappearing Oil?," Mother Jones, August 19, 2010, by Kate Sheppard

-- "White House Slammed for Rosy Gulf View," Politico, August 19, 2010, by Dan Berman and Josh Voorhees

-- "Top Democrat Criticizes U.S. Oil Spill Report," Wall Street Journal, August 19, 2010, by Siobhan Hughes and Stephen Power

-- "Rep. Markey Challenges U.S. Claims About Gulf Spill," NPR's All Things Considered, August 19, 2010, by Brian Naylor

-- "Gulf Oil Spill: Most of the Oil Remains," Greenspace blog, Los Angeles Times, August 19, 2010, by Kim Murphy

-- "Major Study Proves Oil Plume That's Not Going Away," Associated Press, August 19, 2010

-- House Energy and Commerce Committee, Subcommittee on Energy and Environment, Hearing on "The BP Oil Spill: Accounting for the Spilled Oil and Ensuring the Safety of Seafood from the Gulf," August 19, 2010, proceedings. Includes prepared testimony and statements, and briefing memo, preliminary transcript, and video of hearing.

-- "NOAA Claims Scientists Reviewed Controversial Report; The Scientists Say Otherwise," Huffington Post, August 20, 2010, by Dan Froomkin

-- "Questions Mount About White House's Overly Rosy Report On Oil Spill," Huffington Post August 20, 2010, by Dan Froomkin

-- "Gulf Oil Spill: Government Regulator Downplayed Environmental Impact Of Spill," Huffington Post, August 21, 2010, by Marcus Baram

-- "Markey: BP Refuses to Accept Flow Rate Number, Spill Size, Liability," House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, Press Release of August 25, 2010

Oil Spill Commission Critique

-- "Spill Commission Report Details Failures of Administration's 'Oil Budget'," Washington Independent, October 6, 2010

-- "The Amount and Fate of the Oil," draft staff working paper No. 3, National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling,

-- "WH Responds to Critical Reports from Oil Commission," ABC News Political Punch, October 6, 2010

-- "Panel Blasts Government On Gulf Oil Spill Response," NPR, October 7, 2010, by Ari Shapiro

-- Audio of Plenary Session, "Lessons from the Gulf," Friday, October 15, 2010, 3:30 pm, Society of Environmental Journalists Annual Conference, Missoula, Montana (includes Q&A with NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco)

-- "Lubchenco Challenged on Release By White House of Gulf Spill Pie Chart," Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media, October 21, 2010

-- "Massive Stretches Of Weathered Oil Spotted In Gulf Of Mexico," New Orleans Times-Picayune, October 23, 2010

Earlier CSW Posts:

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

Whistleblower seeking to force shutdown of BP Atlantis oil rig, another potential Gulf disaster

NOAA Atlantic Hurricane Season Outlook evasive on climate change

NOAA’s Tom Karl explains temperature data supporting conclusion: ‘global warming is unequivocal’

Tom Karl discusses plans for NOAA Climate Service

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