Reports show White House mishandled oil spill response

President Obama’s May directive to triple the number of people working to stop the Gulf oil spill may have actually hindered the government’s response. The Coast Guard, in the days after the April 20 Deepwater Horizon explosion, kept track of the government’s response to the spill on a “simple Microsoft Excel spreadsheet.” The White House denied a request by government scientists in the weeks after the spill to release worst-case oil flow rate scenarios to the public.

President Obama is updated on the oil spill response in New Orleans in June. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

These are just three of the many revelations included in four draft reports released Wednesday by the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling, which Obama established in May. The reports, which the commission notes are subject to change and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the commissioners, paint one of the most detailed pictures of the federal government’s response to the oil spill. And it’s not pretty.

The reports say the Obama administration was not prepared for a spill the size of the one in the Gulf, which spewed 4.9 million barrels of oil into the ocean. They detail the many stops and starts of the Unified Command, which was set up to organize response efforts. And they suggest that the administration sought desperately to keep the oil spill from becoming for Obama what Hurricane Katrina was for George Bush.

The initial response to the spill — the first nine days — was marked by a sense of “over-optimism.” According to one report, “Responders almost uniformly noted that, while they understood that they were facing a major spill, they believed that BP would get the well under control.”

But it’s unclear what impact this over-optimism had on the response. “While it is not clear that this misplaced optimism affected any individual response effort, it may have affected the scale and speed with which national resources were brought to bear,” one oil spill commission report says. “In hindsight, some Coast Guard responders thought that their initial approach was too slow and unfocused.” The report notes however that despite the slow initial response, by mid-June the Coast Guard was “fighting a war against the oil.”

While the National Contingency Plan, the document that lays out how to contain and respond to an oil spill, was adequate in some respects, the report says, “In other respects, the plan was inadequate to handle the scale of the spill — its magnitude, duration, and effects on many stakeholders.”

At the same time, efforts by President Obama and the White House to shape the way Americans saw the government’s response may have complicated the effort. Responding to polls that suggested the American people believed the federal government was not adequately dealing with the situation in the Gulf, President Obama announced in May that he would triple oil spill response resources. That decision, one report says, may have actually hindered the government’s response to the spill.

According to the report, the Obama directive may have confused the spill response by throwing more manpower at an already complicated operation.

“Responders noted that “tripling” taxed the Coast Guard’s ability to respond and to conduct its other missions and may not have been the most effective use of a thin-spread force in a lengthy campaign,” the report says. “Tripling, or at least the arguable overreaction to the public perception of a slow response, resulted in resources being thrown at the spill in general rather than being targeted in an efficient way.”

The reports also raise significant questions about the process the government used to determine just how much oil was leaking into the Gulf of Mexico. One report says BP’s initial estimate that 1,000 barrels of oil per day were leaking out of the well was essentially pulled out of thin air.

“Neither the Coast Guard nor BP divulged the data or methodology behind this estimate,” the report says. “Based on the information we have to date, it appears the figure came from BP without supporting documentation.”

What’s more, when the Coast Guard later upped the estimate to 5,000 barrels per day days, it based that figure on an unsolicited letter from a scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who had no expertise in making such estimates.

Despite these estimates, government officials responded to the spill based on worst-case-scenario flow rates. Those estimates changed over time, but were significantly higher than the figures the Coast Guard gave to the public.

The oil spill commission’s report suggests that the federal government kept key information from the public in the weeks after the spill, with the White House in at least one case rejecting a request by government scientists to reveal to the public worst-case-scenario flow rate data. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a key agency involved in the spill response, wanted to release some of the worst-case discharge figures in the weeks after the spill but the White House Office of Management and Budget denied its request.

The lack of information could have fueled distrust of the government’s response to the spill. At the same time, the response “may have benefited from a greater sense of urgency” in the first days after the spill, which could have come about if the worst-case scenarios were released publicly, the report says.

The White House, in a statement e-mailed to reporters today, said it did release information about the worst-case-scenario flow rate. In May, administration officials said the worst-case scenario could be a release of more than 100,000 barrels a day.

“The federal government response was full force and immediate, and the response focused on state and local plans and evolved when needed,” the White House statement said.

The reports also take aim at the administration’s so-called “Oil Budget,” a much-criticized August assessment of the spill put together by the Obama administration. The document was only meant to be used for “operational” purposes, according to the report, not as a public document that would lay out the “fate of oil” in the Gulf, as the Obama administration would later frame it.

The Oil Budget, which was put together by the Coast Guard’s Oil Budget Calculator Science and Engineering Team, was released on Aug. 4. It gave the first estimate of the amount of oil that spilled into the Gulf, about 4.9 million barrels. But it also obscured what had happened to the oil that spilled into the Gulf by failing to take into account biodegradation — or as the commission’s report says, “the exact amounts of remaining, dissolved, and dispersed oil.”

The spill commission’s report places much of the blame for mischaracterizations of the Oil Budget on White House climate and energy policy coordinator Carol Browner, who exaggerated the Oil Budget’s findings in television interviews. “Ms. Browner did not describe the Oil Budget as an operational tool designed to assist responders,” the report says. “Instead, some of her statements presented the budget as a scientific assessment of how much of the oil was ‘gone.’”

The Oil Budget was not peer reviewed, the report finds. “The criticism that the Oil Budget was not a peer-reviewed scientific report was accurate. Even the independent scientists that were described as peer reviewers were critical of the report and the way it was presented,” the report says.

While scientists were consulted on the Oil Budget, those same scientists took issue with the way the document was characterized by the administration in interviews with oil spill commission staff. Still, the spill commission’s report was not able to analyze the assumptions used in the Oil Budget because the Obama administration refuses to make them public until it completes a comprehensive report on the spill this month.

Another report focuses on the administration’s use of chemical dispersants to break up oil and keep it from hitting shore. The federal government was not prepared to determine how chemical dispersants should be used to break up oil in the event of a massive oil spill, a draft report released today by the the national oil spill commission says.

According to the report, the Environmental Protection Agency and NOAA — two federal agencies that played a major role in the oil spill response — never considered the possibility that a major spill would require such large quantities of dispersant. Though the spill was unprecedented, the oil spill commission does not excuse EPA’s lack of preparation. “The oil and gas industry has been extracting high volumes of oil from reservoirs in the Gulf for twenty years,” the report says. “This is not a new, unanticipated development. Nor is deepwater drilling.”

The report says it is “too early to assess” whether the Obama administration made the right choice in using such massive amounts of chemical dispersant. But the report does lay out a number of “uncertainties” about the benefits of dispersant use, including its impact on marine life.

The draft reports, released today, were put together by staff for the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling. The reports, according to the commission, are “preliminary, subject to change and do not necessarily reflect the views either of the commission as a whole or any of its members.” The reports are based in part on confidential interviews with key players in the oil spill response.

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Andrew Restuccia

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