Top White House officials manipulated the scientific findings of independent experts to “seriously lowball the amount of oil leaking from the BP Deepwater Horizon,” according to a group of federal, state, and municipal employees.
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a national alliance of publicly employed scientists, law enforcement authorities, land managers, and other professionals dedicated to upholding U.S. environmental laws and values, filed a scientific integrity complaint Monday after reviewing documents it obtained through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.
According to PEER, the documents, which include a series of high-level emails, “indicate White House pressure to present low-range estimates as best estimates. In fact, numbers presented to the public were less than half the true flow rate.”
PEER explains how shortly after the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, the White House assembled a group of experts from academia, industry, and government to estimate the rate of oil gushing from BP’s blown-out Macondo well. That group, the Flow Rate Technical Group (FRTG), would provide these vital calculations independent of the estimates BP’s engineers offered.
In its complaint, PEER charges that Dr. William Lehr of the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), who was appointed as leader of one of the most critical FRTG groups, “manipulated the scientific results of the FRTG experts thoughout the entire crisis to significantly understate the spill reate.”
PEER also points out that the same Dr. Lehr is author of the report that concluded 75 percent of the oil had disappeared from the Gulf of Mexico little more than 3 months after the spill began.
As leader of the FRTG “Plume Team” that analyzed videos of the gushing well to produce early flow-rate estimates, Dr. Lehr relied on Particle Image Velocimetry (PIV) to estimate a leak rate in the range of 25,000 barrels per day. However, other members of the team using a more accurate measuring system found that PIV analyses were underestimating the leak by more then 50 percent. Their estimates of 50,000-60,000 bpd were not acknowledged in the Plume Team’s final report. The lower figures were reported to the public and the national media repeatedly.
FRTG members complained to Dr. Marcia McNutt, Director of the U.S. Geologic Survey, about the disagreements and omissions. She responded to them on May 29, saying pressure from the White House was to blame.
“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.”
While the oil was gushing from the Macondo well, scientists had to rely on analytical calculations to determine the size of BP’s oil spill. Those estimates would serve, officials presumed, as the basis per-barrel fines against BP for violating the Clean Water Act and other environmental laws. The lower the spill estimate, the lower BP would have to pay in civil fines.
However, “the leak rate was physically measured by an Energy Department team as the well was capped. This final official estimate set the leak rate at 62,000 bpd (decreasing to 53,000 bpd when finally closed), proving correct the suppressed estimates from dissenting Plume Team members,” according to PEER.
Sadly, the President’s National Commission concluded that gross underestimation of the oil spill hampered clean-up efforts and caused numerous attempts to cap the well to fail.
“This complaint serves as a litmus test as to whether the Obama administration will apply its scientific integrity rules to its own actions,” stated PEER executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that his organization has waged an 18-month court battle to obtain approximately 100 highly redacted emails while several hundred more emails are still being withheld.
“Hopefully, the investigation of this complaint will force the immediate release of the full deliberations so that the scientific record can be set straight.”