Did the Obama Administration Pressure Scientists to Downplay BP Spill Size?

Patrik Tschudin/CC BY 2.0

Over at Mother Jones, Kate Sheppard reports that a Freedom of Information Act request has unearthed evidence that the White House may have played a role in keeping the public estimates of the BP spill size way too low.

You all remember that, right? That numbers game where BP would come out with an absurdly low spill-rate estimate, then everyone would call them out on it until they raised it to a slightly less absurd but still-way-too-low figure?

In case not, here's Sheppard:

For the first few weeks after the spill began in April 2010, BP misled the public about how big it was, and the government repeated BP's estimate without question. And when the government released its own estimate in late May of up to 25,000 barrels per day, that too was controversial—and proved to be far lower than the actual size, which was more like 53,000 barrels of oil per day.

Now, an email released by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) traces efforts to downplay the spill size in the initial weeks back to the White House. The group released a May 29, 2010 email from Dr. Marcia McNutt, the director of the US Geological Survey and head of the government's Flow Rate Technical Group (FRTG), that was released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.

And here's a quote from a chunk of that damning email:

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.

Read the Mother Jones piece for more on the emails, but the gist is that it seems like the White House really didn't want to release the better-rounded figures projected by scientists who analyzed the spill rate at the source of the well, just the 'lower-end' estimates. So that's why we heard 25K, despite some scientists accurately projecting the proper range of 50-60K barrels. It also turns out that one higher-up scientist in particular may have been instrumental in massaging the estimates.

Either way, there's not a whole lot of proof in this one email that the Obama administration actively worked to suppress the truth. It could, as Sheppard notes, have been the result of inaccurate info from scientists. Or, sure, it could have been a dubious motion by the White House PR desk to latch onto the lower range of numbers given in the estimate.

For all the battling over figures between BP, scientists, the White House, and environmental groups, the funny part about it all is this: None of it ended up seeming to really matter to the public at large anyways (BP wanted the numbers down for other reasons, of course, so they'd be less liable in damages). The public didn't really give a shit about the numbers. Whether it was 1,000 barrels a day as initially reported, or 70,000 barrels a day, as the higher-end estimates posited, it really didn't make a difference in terms public outrage. We know this now, because after the estimates were raised... nobody was outraged.

The difference between the two above estimates is minimal in emotional consideration. Nobody can actually picture what the difference between 1K and 70K barrels of oil looks like underwater. It didn't end up registering in any meaningful way. The pelicans got covered in oily goop regardless of the specific size of the plume.

Of course, we need our government to be working to get us the best possible information, and holding negligent companies properly accountable, and it would be unacceptable if the White House was suppressing information—and I guarantee you people would be more outraged about that than any upgrading of the spill size.

Tags: Gulf Oil Spill | Oil | Oil Spill

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