WASHINGTON -- President Obama's administration is hiding the memos and e-mails behind official scientific assessments of the size of the massive BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, according to a lawsuit filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), where I serve as Southwest Director. Estimates of the leak rate inexplicably rose five-fold amid reports that political appointees sought to low ball the size of the spill.
The controversy concerns the National Incident Command's Flow Rate Technical Group which, among other tasks, was charged with developing an independent estimate of the amount of oil flowing from BP's leaking oil well. Marcia McNutt, Director of the Interior Department's U.S. Geological Survey, chaired the Technical Group. On May 27 2010, Dr. McNutt issued a public statement that the "Best Estimate" range of flow rates was between 12,000 to 19,000 barrels per day (bpd) but she -
- Omitted the fact that these were minimum estimates (deleting phrases such as "at least" and "range of lower bounds") and did not mention completed estimates that were much higher. Significantly, the Technical Group was supposed to look at worst-case, catastrophic scenarios to help gauge needed resources and tactics for spill response;
- Withheld the actual technical report and instead released only a summary that she wrote; and
- Directed that none of the Technical Group documents was subject to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and that group members should not disclose any materials.
Ultimately, the oil leak rate has been measured in the new well cap system to be 55,000 bpd, a daily flow rate that had diminished over time, starting at about 62,000 bpd. These numbers were much higher than the previously released figures - a disparity that has yet to be explained.
On July 6, 2010, PEER requested the release of all of the Technical Group papers, including directives from Dr. McNutt and other Interior political appointees but virtually none of these materials has been released. Today, PEER filed suit in federal district court in Washington, D.C. claiming that hundreds of pages of reports and communications are being withheld in violation of FOIA.
"This lawsuit will produce Exhibit A for the case that science is still being manipulated under the current administration," stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that promised scientific integrity safeguards which would have prevented or exposed political interference in this arena are still not in place more than a year after the deadline imposed by President Obama. "Our concern is that the administration took, and is still taking, steps to falsely minimize public perception about the extent and severity of the BP spill - a concern that the administration could start to dispel by releasing these documents."
A similar controversy is brewing about the "Oil Budget" released by the administration which estimates that 75% of the BP oil spill has dissipated or been removed but the scientific methodology, let alone the actual studies, behind this conclusion has yet to be disclosed.
- adapted from PEER.org