President Obama’s National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling, created through executive order on May 21, 2010, issued four preliminary working papers today that include tough criticisms of the administration’s handling of the spills.
“For the first ten days of the spill, it appears that a sense of over-optimism affected responders,” one paper says. “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…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. In hindsight, some Coast Guard responders thought that their initial approach was too slow and unfocused.”
The report also says that the administration’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.”
Why were initial estimates of the leak so small?
The Commission also notes that after “the discovery of these leaks on April 24, 2010, Coast Guard and BP officials put out an estimate: Up to 1,000 bbls/day were flowing from the two leaks in the riser. Neither the Coast Guard nor BP divulged the data or methodology behind this estimate. Based on the information we have to date, it appears the figure came from BP without supporting documentation.”
Then a NOAA scientist estimated that a leak of 5,000 bbls/day – but that estimate did “not take into account the kink leak, and his methodology for estimating the velocity of the leaking oil was imprecise. Further, there is no indication that the scientist had expertise in estimating deep-sea flow velocity from video data or that he used an established or peer-reviewed methodology when doing so. This is not a criticism of the scientist, who made clear his assumptions and that the 5,000 bbls/day figure was a ‘very rough estimate.’ His stated intent in disseminating the estimate was to warn government officials that the flow rate was multiple times greater than 1,000 bbls/day. Despite the acknowledged inaccuracies of the NOAA scientist’s estimate, and despite the existence of other and potentially better methodologies for visually assessing flow rate (discussed below), 5,000 bbls/day was to remain the government’s official flow-rate estimate for a full month, until May 27, 2010.”
Another part of the report — “The Amount and Fate of the Oil” — suggests that the White House told the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to not alert the public about the worst case possibilities of oil discharge from the well.
Soon after the spill began, Coast Guard personnel asked the Minerals Management Service and BP for a “worst-case discharge” estimate. Both reported a figure of 162,000 bbls/day –the worst-case estimate from BP’s original drilling permit — but the Coast Guard did not believe that to be a credible worst-case estimate. “On April 23, 2010, the Coast Guard and NOAA received an updated estimate of 64,000-110,000 bbls/day,” the report states. “By early May, BP had lowered its worst-case estimate to 60,000 bbls/day.”
The Commission states that in “late April or early May 2010, NOAA wanted to make public some of its long-term, worst-case discharge models for the Deepwater Horizon spill, and requested approval to do so from the White House’s Office of Management and Budget. Staff was told that the Office of Management and Budget denied NOAA’s request.”
Carole Browner’s appearance on GMA is cited in the report. An “oil budget” – an estimate of how much oil remained in the ocean after the oil leak was contained – was created “to tell responders how much oil was present for clean-up operations, not to tell the public how much oil was still in Gulf waters,” the report said.
And yet, on the morning of August 4, 2010, the report states, “the Director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy, Carol Browner, appeared on ABC, CBS, NBC, MSNBC, and Fox News morning shows to discuss the success of the static kill effort and the conclusions of the Oil Budget Team. Ms. Browner did not describe the Oil Budget as an operational tool designed to assist responders. Instead, some of her statements presented the budget as a scientific assessment of how much of the oil was ‘gone’:
"The scientists are telling us about 25 percent was not captured or evaporated or taken care of by mother nature," Browner told GMA.
“I think it’s also important to note that our scientists have done an initial assessment, and more than three-quarters of the oil is gone,” Browner said on the TODAY Show. “The vast majority of the oil is gone.”
But the report states: “The Oil Budget Team’s findings, however, did not support the claim that 75% of the oil was ‘gone.’ The 75% not in the ‘remaining’ category included ‘dissolved’ and ‘dispersed’ oil, which was potentially being biodegraded, but was not ‘gone.’”
UPDATE: Acting OMB Director Jeffrey Zients and NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco issued this statement:
“NOAA produced a report at the request of the Unified Command to project the most likely movement of oil. As part of its function to coordinate and review all interagency materials developed in response to the BP oil spill, OMB led a review of a preliminary report and provided comments to ensure the analysis reflected the best known information at the time and accurately reflected the limitation of the model and available information, including response actions. For example, the initial analysis did not include the fact that there was use of boom, skimming, burning, and/or other methods to contain and remove the oil and therefore ran the risk of not accurately reflecting response actions taken. NOAA incorporated the feedback, and the eventual report reflected this improved analysis which is available online: http://www.noaanews.noaa.gov/stories2010/20100702_longterm.html.
The facts bear out that the federal response significantly mitigated the impact of the spill.
As for the predictions about the spill flow rate, senior government officials were clear with the public what the worst-case flow rate could be: in early May, Secretary Salazar and Admiral Thad Allen told the American people that the worst case scenario could be more than 100,000 barrels a day. In addition, BP reported in 2009 that a blowout of the Deepwater Horizon (MC 252) could yield 162,000 barrels of oil a day (http://media.al.com/live/other/BP%20drill%20plan.pdf).
Since the Deepwater Horizon explosion the night of April 20, federal authorities, both military and civilian, have been working on-site and around the clock to respond to and mitigate the impact of the resulting BP Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The federal government response was full force and immediate, and the response focused on state and local plans and evolved when needed. As directed by the President, the response was based on science, even when that pitted us against BP or state and local officials, and the response pushed BP every step of the way. Finally, and most importantly, the response provided results for the people of the Gulf Coast.”