Obama officials pushed to underestimate Gulf oil spill

By Stephen C. Webster
Monday, January 23, 2012 14:42 EDT
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Images of the BP oil spill on The Gulf of Mexico. Image via AFP.
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Amid the worst accidental release of crude oil in human history, the Obama administration sought to undermine its own scientists’ estimates of just how much oil was gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, a newly disclosed email reveals.

Obtained by a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed by the advocacy group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), the message shows how the White House, the National Incident Command (NIC) and Department of the Interior (DOI) recommended scientists with the U.S. Geologic Survey (USGS) lowball their estimates in public statements.

The agency was able to determine that at least 25,000 barrels of oil were gushing out of the damaged BP well in the gulf — an estimate they said was on the low end of the spectrum. But when those figures were reported by members of the press, they were stated dramatically lower, sparking complaints from scientists who felt their findings were being misrepresented.

The email’s author, Dr. Marcia McNutt, replied to the team by explaining that the White House had suggested she “simplify” the USGS estimate by claiming there was around 12,000 to 19,000 barrels per day gushing from the well, or “as high as 25,000 barrels per day.”

She added that an admiral with NIC suggested she claim the estimate was between 12,000-25,000 barrels per day, noting the apparent disconnect between what the USGS actually found and what they were being advised to say.

“Bottom line: if you are at a university, do convince some of your best and brightest to go into science communication,” McNutt wrote. “Please.”

The same advocacy group has filed an allegation of scientific misconduct (PDF) against Dr. William Lehr, who works for Massachusetts Institute of Technology and led the NIC’s plume analysis team. PEER claims Dr. Lehr “engaged in coercive manipulation of the Plume Team’s scientific activities, fabricated and falsified the scientific findings of the Plume Team, and prevented members of the plume Team with conflicting findings from communicating their findings to key decision makers.”

They claim the result of his alleged interference was a massive underestimation of the Gulf plume’s size, causing a slower-than-hoped response from Washington.

Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster is the senior editor of Raw Story, and is based out of Austin, Texas. He previously worked as the associate editor of The Lone Star Iconoclast in Crawford, Texas, where he covered state politics and the peace movement’s resurgence at the start of the Iraq war. Webster has also contributed to publications such as True/Slant, Austin Monthly, The Dallas Business Journal, The Dallas Morning News, Fort Worth Weekly, The News Connection and others. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenCWebster.
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