White House is accused of politicizing oil spill estimates
Published: Tuesday, January 25, 2011, 4:03 PM Updated: Tuesday, January 25, 2011, 5:33 PM
A Democratic congressman wrote a scathing letter Tuesday to President Barack Obama accusing the White House of valuing public relations over science when it made public pronouncements about the effects of the BP oil spill and the government’s role in fighting it.
Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., a liberal conservationist and avowed opponent of expanded offshore drilling, charges that spin control won out over scientific reasoning during discussions late last summer about how much oil remained in the Gulf. The congressman went so far as to liken Obama’s handling of scientific information to that of his predecessor, Republican George W. Bush, often accused by Democrats of placing his political agenda ahead of science.
Grijalva was joined by the watchdog group Project On Government Oversight, or POGO, which said it was disturbed by e-mails indicating the “White House may have ignored expert advice from agency officials and pressured scientists to make changes … to advance a public relations agenda.”
But those assertions were rejected by one of the top scientists in the government’s oil spill response — Bill Lehr, senior scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who represents a union of more than 1,000 federal scientists and engineers. He said he fights to make sure union members can operate “free of political influence,” and believes the Obama administration ensured scientists had independence and a strong voice throughout the oil spill response.
“This administration has been more open to full scientific disclosure than earlier administrations, and there was no attempt to alter the findings” in a final technical report on how much oil spilled and where it went, Lehr said in an e-mail Tuesday.
White House spokesman Clark Stevens said the e-mails that Grijalva and POGO picked apart Tuesday, and the involvement of the White House, actually show the government’s dedication to transparency.
“The federal response required extensive coordination and involved a broad range of scientists and experts from across, as well as outside, the federal government,” Stevens said. “These e-mails reflect close and effective coordination and healthy scientific debate among numerous federal agencies and the White House.”
NOAA spokesman Justin Kenney said that debate among scientists and the White House “is the hallmark of good policy making, especially during a national crisis. Contents of these emails show the effort made to communicate real-time scientific information to the American public quickly and clearly.”
The Obama administration has had to defend itself against attacks from both sides of the political spectrum over its response to the April 20 Deepwater Horizon disaster and the resulting 87-day oil leak. The nation was transfixed by constant images of thick oil and gas plumes shooting from the well a mile under the ocean.
Liberals didn’t like that Obama had backed an expansion of offshore oil exploration shortly before the incident, and they pushed the idea that unchecked drilling had caused an environmental catastrophe. In turn, conservatives and Gulf Coast leaders blasted Obama for overreacting when he implemented a ban on deepwater drilling, insisting he was creating an economic disaster for the region.
Evidence suggests that neither side’s worst-case concerns came true. But both have continued to question the legitimacy of scientific data offered by official government sources, and to look skeptically at how the White House portrayed the information. In early June, a group of scientists cited by the Interior Department to justify its May 30 deepwater drilling moratorium said they actually opposed the ban and alleged their input had been misrepresented. Obama’s opponents on the right pounced.
Now, on the day of Obama’s crucial State of the Union address and amid the unexpected and politically tinged resignation of top energy adviser Carol Browner, the president was hit with new attacks from the left.
Browner played a central role in one of the most thoroughly debated missteps of the government’s spill response. She mischaracterized scientists’ analysis of how much oil was left in the water on Aug. 4, going on morning national news shows to say that “more than three-quarters of the oil is gone” when the scientific report released that day actually said half of the oil was still in the system in some form.
After her TV appearances and after the New York Times also reported that only about a quarter of the oil remained, Jane Lubchenco, the NOAA administrator, sent an e-mail to the White House expressing concern about the “errors” and asking the administration to correct them.
The White House has repeatedly said Browner made an honest misstatement.
Lehr, meanwhile, said the focus on Browner’s statements is misplaced.
“Instead of dwelling on possible misstatements by some administration officials regarding the August announcement, I think it is more important to note that the (science) team received support from the heads of NOAA, USGS and NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology) to do the technical study without political restriction,” Lehr said.
In one e-mail cited by Grijalva, a NOAA official complained about getting “strong pushback” from the White House regarding scientists’ plan to announce that the total amount of oil spilled might be higher than the official government-endorsed figure of 4.9 million barrels. The final report stuck with the 4.9 million barrel figure, which was near the high end of the scientists’ estimate of 3 million-5 million barrels spilled.
Another e-mail sent July 31 from Environmental Protection Agency Deputy Administrator Bob Perciasepe warned that it would be a mistake to present the exact percentage of the oil broken down by chemical dispersants, a controversial part of the government’s response, because the numbers were only “rough estimates.” But he was overruled and told the White House wanted a “communication product” that would highlight the success of its spill-fighting efforts.
As it turned out, a peer-reviewed report in November showed that chemical dispersants were actually more successful in breaking down the oil than the estimates the White House insisted on presenting in August, over Perciasepe’s objections.
“The conclusions in the peer-reviewed technical report represent the scientific consensus of the experts that contributed to it, not any political spin,” Lehr said.
Grijalva, who claims he was passed over by Obama to be the secretary of Interior in part because of his strong stance against drilling, said he plans to raise the concerns outlined in his letter when he and other members of the House Natural Resources Committee hear testimony Wednesday from the co-chairmen of Obama’s Oil Spill Commission.
The commission was critical of Browner’s statements Aug. 4, but generally was supportive of the way scientists presented information during an intense summer.
While much of the information that Grijalva and POGO cite in their letters is recycled from a large release of documents in November, they do call attention to some new details.
POGO director Danielle Brian and investigator Paul Thacker questioned why the EPA’s Albert Venosa was cited in a July 29 draft as one of four federal scientists who helped create the “Oil Budget Report,” but neither he nor the EPA appear on the final Aug. 4 report. Venosa is consulted about some of the report’s contents in e-mails and other EPA officials provided advice, but EPA spokesman Brendan Gilfillan said they were not listed on the final report because they “were not involved in the actual development of the … document.”
Similarly, Grijalva questioned why a BP executive, Peter Carragher, was listed as an “independent scientist” who reviewed the calculation methods used in the July 29 draft, but was later removed from the credits.
The Department of Commerce, which houses NOAA, considered using BP’s expertise, as a part of the Unified Command spill response, to review the report. But in the end, Carragher didn’t participate in the review or contribute to the report.
David Hammer can be reached at email@example.com or 504.826.3322.