PEER alleges scientific misconduct at NOAA in lowballing of BP spill rate, traces political pressure to White House

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BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig ablaze (Photo: U.S. Coast Guard)

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility has filed a formal allegation of scientific misconduct by a senior scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, charging that he manipulated and falsified scientific communication to policymakers and the public so as to substantially underestimate the flow rate from the disastrous BP Deepwater Horizon oil blowout in 2010. PEER also released an email from Dr. Marcia McNutt, Director of the U.S. Geological Survey, citing pressure from the White House toward communicating an underestimate of the blowout flow rate. These allegations suggest a disturbing parallel with practices we saw in the White House and NOAA under the Bush Administration.

[UPDATE: Please note the comment posted below by Bill Lehr responding to PEER's charge.]

Why did this happen on NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco’s watch? Will NOAA’s new Scientific Integrity Policy prevent something like this from happening again, or are the political pressures and agency science infighting just too great?

And what is to be done if the scientific integrity problem is with the President’s people in the White House? Why did this happen on Presidential Science Adviser John Holdren’s watch? Was he in the loop when White House officials were allegedly undermining accurate communication?

Kate Sheppard at Mother Jones covered this story on January 23 (“Report: White House Pressured Scientists to Underestimate BP Spill Size”).

From the January 23 news release by PEER:

HIGH-LEVEL LOWBALL IN GULF DEEPWATER CRISIS —

Scientific Integrity Complaint Details Official Underestimation of BP Spill Rate

Washington, DC — Top Obama officials manipulated scientific analyses of independent experts to seriously lowball the amount of oil leaking from the BP Deepwater Horizon, according to a scientific integrity complaint filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

Documents obtained by PEER through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit indicate White House pressure to present low-range estimates as best estimates. In fact, numbers presented to the public were less than half the true flow rate.

On May 19, 2010, one month after the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, the White House announced creation of a group of experts from academia, industry and government to generate an accurate and independent estimate of the oil leak rate. This group was called the Flow Rate Technical Group (FRTG).

Using new scientific integrity rules, PEER today filed a complaint charging that the leader of one of the FRTG Teams, Dr. William Lehr of the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), manipulated the scientific results of the FRTG experts throughout the entire crisis to significantly understate the spill rate. Lehr is also the author of the now infamous “Oil Budget Calculator” and a report concluding 75% of the oil was gone from the Gulf by August 2010.

Lehr was leader of one of the most important FRTG teams, the “Plume Team” which analyzed videos of the oil leaks to produce the first estimates. Three of the 13 Plume Team experts used a technique called Particle Image Velocimetry (PIV) to estimate a leak rate in the range of 25,000 bpd. But three other experts on the Plume Team reported that PIV was underestimating the size of the leak by more than 50%. Those three experts used a different technology to correctly peg the leak rate at 50,000 to 60,000 bpd.

Yet Lehr did not tell the public or key decision makers that there was a deep split on the Plume Team. In the Plume Team’s Final Report, the body of which Lehr wrote, he reported that “most of the Plume Team used PIV” which produced “consistent and accurate” estimates. These underestimates were repeated to the public and media. When experts on the FRTG complained to Dr. Marcia McNutt, Director of the U.S. Geologic Survey, she cited pressure from the White House, saying in a May 29 email that:

“I cannot tell you what a nightmare the past two days have been dealing with the communications people at the White House, DOI, and the NIC who seem incapable of understanding the concept of a lower bound. The press release that went out on our results was misleading and was not reviewed by a scientist for accuracy.”

Throughout the Plume Team’s work it was widely thought that physical measurement of the leak was not possible and therefore it was assumed that Plume Team estimates of the leak rate would be used to assess damages in future litigation. Thus, manipulating spill rate estimates down to 25,000 bpd instead of 60,000 bpd could have reduced damages paid by BP and/or other responsible parties by tens of billions of dollars. Even more significantly, the President’s National Commission concluded that underestimates of the size of the spill hampered clean-up efforts and caused numerous attempts to cap the well to fail.

In fact, the leak rate was physically measured by an Energy Department team as the well was capped. This final official estimate set the leak rate at 62,000 bpd (decreasing to 53,000 bpd when finally closed), proving correct the suppressed estimates from dissenting Plume Team members.

“This complaint serves as a litmus test as to whether the Obama administration will apply its scientific integrity rules to its own actions,” stated PEER executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that his organization has waged an 18-month court battle to obtain approximately 100 highly redacted emails while several hundred more emails are still being withheld. “Hopefully, the investigation of this complaint will force the immediate release of the full deliberations so that the scientific record can be set straight.”

###

Read the PEER complaint

View the email describing White House pressure

See new paper admitting errors

Look at the PEER lawsuit

Sheppard writes at Mother Jones:

It's not entirely clear from PEER's release, though, what was real reason for the inaccurate figures—a single scientist giving inaccurate information, the White House pressuring him to do so, or the White House screwing up the reporting of the figures. Whatever it was, it resulted in the public getting a dramatically inaccurate impression about the size of the spill.

Some earlier posts on Obama and scientific integrity:

What to do when the White House sets science aside?

"Smog Rules" -- Obama, scientific integrity, and environmental policy

Some earlier posts on NOAA scientific integrity issues:

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

BP control of Gulf cleanup money interfering with scientific integrity of damage assessment, Senate Environment committee told at hearing

NOAA scientific integrity policy, Part 1: Scientists’ communication freedom still limited by Commerce Dept restrictions

NOAA scientific integrity policy, Part 2: Stronger whistleblower protections still needed

And on political interference with scientific communication at NOAA under the Bush Administration, numerous posts are summarized and linked to here:

Notes on Conrad Lautenbacher’s troubled legacy on science and politics at NOAA (Part 2)

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2 Responses to PEER alleges scientific misconduct at NOAA in lowballing of BP spill rate, traces political pressure to White House

  1. Bill Lehr says:

    This comment is my own personal opinion, not that of any agency of the Federal government. The PEER allegations are false and misleading. Readers are encouraged to download the Plume Team final report from the DOI Deepwater Horizon website. If they do that they will note each team member was allowed to include uncensored a description of the methods that they used and the results they found. Each team member was given opportunity to comment and suggest changes on the conclusions. The conclusions include the consensus estimate of the majority of team members, including some members who used non-standard imaging techniques. Copies of the report were provided to high-level government officials to aid in making response decisions but also made available to the public. While the answers may not fit the political agenda of PEER, they were a honest attempt by some of the country's leading experts on fluid flow to provide a timely answer under emergency conditions.

    PEER owes the entire Plume Team a sincere apology.

    Bill Lehr

  2. Bill Lehr says:

    Further follow-up: Unfortunately, NOAA had to use taxpayer dollars to confirm the obvious, that the PEER charges lacked sufficient substance and were unworthy of a formal investigation. I personally find this irresponsible publicity stunt of Mr. Ruch and his organization a disgrace to those of us dedicated to protecting the environment. Shame on you, Mr. Ruch!
    These opinions are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of NOAA.

    Bill Lehr

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