The Obama administration consistently low-balled its estimates of how much oil was pouring into the Gulf of Mexico from BP's runaway well and offered rosy assessments of the spill's impact after the well was capped, independent government investigators said in a bluntly critical report Wednesday.
The repeated underestimation of what became the biggest offshore oil spill in U.S. history contributed to public skepticism about the efficacy of the administration's response, they said.
"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," investigators for the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling said in the report.
The report was one of four preliminary assessments prepared for the commission created by President Obama. Taken together, two of the reports paint a picture of a government that was as unprepared to deal with a catastrophic spill as BP. And the portrait of an administration that withheld information from the public and, more specifically, scientists, about how much oil was getting into the water, how much remained and how such estimates were calculated appeared to contradict Obama's pledge to make government more transparent and trustworthy.
The government's estimates of oil flow were highly inaccurate from the start, the report said, and stayed that way until about mid-June — two months after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and sank, killing 11 workers on board and rupturing the BP well.
Independent scientists from institutions such as Columbia University, UC Berkeley and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts calculated much higher flow rates far earlier, from video feeds of oil and gas gushing from the broken riser pipe that had connected the well to the drilling rig on the water's surface.
The report says that the White House Office of Management and Budget refused to let the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration make public some of its long-term, worst-case spill discharge models in the early weeks of the disaster.
The Office of Management and Budget said government officials discussed the possibility that the oil flow might be as much as 100,000 barrels a day.
"Senior government officials were clear with the public what the worst-case flow rate could be: in early May, Secretary [of Interior Ken] Salazar and Admiral Thad Allen [director of the federal spill response] told the American people that the worst-case scenario could be more than 100,000 barrels a day," the office said in a statement Wednesday.
Yet the official estimate of oil leaking was at first about 1,000 barrels a day, and appeared to come "from BP without supporting documentation," the investigators said. Even when it upped the estimate to 5,000 barrels a day, the report said, the government "appears to have taken an overly casual approach to the calculation."
The government provided its definitive estimate in early August: about 60,000 barrels per day.
After the well was capped, the government's information on the whereabouts of the oil raised questions for investigators about whether administration officials "created a misleading impression that the 'fate of the oil' was clear, and that a large majority of the oil was 'gone.' "
On Aug. 4, the White House's director of the Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy, Carol Browner, made the rounds of the TV network morning shows, where she said that "our scientists have done an initial assessment, and more than three-quarters of the oil is gone. The vast majority of the oil is gone."
Oil that is dispersed or dissolved, however, still remains as droplets in the ocean, and investigators said that the government's findings did not quantify how much the oil had degraded.
The report also cast doubt on the administration's assurance that those findings had been peer-reviewed: "even the independent scientists that were described as peer reviewers were critical of the report and the way it was presented."
Neither Browner nor anyone in her office returned phone calls or e-mail seeking comment.