GULF OF MEXICO — The oil spill that damaged the Gulf of Mexico’s reefs and wetlands is also threatening to stain the Obama administration’s reputation for relying on science to guide policy.
Academics, environmentalists and federal investigators have accused the administration since the April spill of downplaying scientific findings, misrepresenting data and most recently misconstruing the opinions of experts it solicited.
Meanwhile, the owner of the rig that exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, Transocean Ltd., is renewing its argument that federal investigators are in danger of allowing the blowout preventer, a key piece of evidence, to corrode as it awaits forensic analysis. Testing had not begun as of last week, the company says, some two months after it was raised from the seafloor.
The blowout preventer could be a key piece of evidence in lawsuits filed by victims, survivors and others. Transocean was responsible for maintaining it while it was being used on BP’s well. Investigators agreed to flush the control pods with fluid on Sept. 27 to prevent corrosion. But a Transocean lawyer wrote in his Nov. 3 letter that there have been no further preservation steps on the blowout preventer since then.
The latest complaint from scientists comes in a report by the Interior Department’s inspector general, which concluded that the White House edited a drilling safety report in a way that made it falsely appear that scientists and experts supported the administration’s six-month ban on new deep-water drilling. The AP obtained the report early Wednesday.
The inspector general said the editing changes by the White House resulted “in the implication that the moratorium recommendation had been peer reviewed.” But it hadn’t been. Outside scientists were asked only to review new safety measures for offshore drilling.
“There are really only a few people that know what they are talking about” on offshore drilling,” said Ford Brett, managing director of Petroskills, a Tulsa, Okla.-based petroleum training organization. “The people who make this policy do not … so don’t misrepresent me and use me for cover,” said Brett, one of seven experts who reviewed the report.
In a statement issued Wednesday, the White House insisted the review was properly coordinated and pointed to the inspector general’s findings.
“Following a review that included interviews with peer review experts, the Inspector General found no intentional misrepresentation of their views…The decision to implement a six-month moratorium on deep-water drilling in the Gulf of Mexico was correctly based on the need for adequate spill response, well containment and safety measures, and we stand behind that decision,” White House deputy press secretary Bill Burton said.
Last month, staff for the presidential oil spill commission said that the White House’s budget office delayed publication of a scientific report that forecast how much oil could reach the Gulf’s shores. Federal scientists initially used a volume of oil that did not account for the administration’s various cleanup efforts, but the government ultimately cited smaller amounts of oil.
The same report said that President Barack Obama’s energy adviser, Carol Browner, mischaracterized on national TV a government analysis about where the oil went, saying it showed most of the oil was “gone.” The report said it could still be there. It also said that Browner and the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Jane Lubchenco, contributed to the public’s perception the report was more exact than it was by emphasizing peer review.
The new inspector general report said Browner’s staff implied that scientists had endorsed the drilling moratorium, by raising a reference to peer review in the drilling safety report. At least one outside expert who was involved said he was convinced afterward that it wasn’t a deliberate deception, and Interior Department officials told the inspector general they didn’t deliberately make changes to cause confusion.
“There was no intent to mislead the public,” said Kendra Barkoff, a spokeswoman for Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who also recommended in the May 27 safety report that a moratorium be placed on deep-water oil and gas exploration. “The decision to impose a temporary moratorium on deep-water drilling was made by the secretary, following consultation with colleagues including the White House.”
After one of the reviewers complained, the Interior Department promptly issued an apology during a conference call, in a formal letter and during a personal meeting in June.
All seven experts asked to review the Interior Department’s work expressed concern about the change made by the White House, saying that it differed in important ways from the draft they had approved.
“We believe the report does not justify the moratorium as written, and that the moratorium as changed will not contribute measurably to increased safety and will have immediate and long-term economic effects,” the scientists wrote earlier this year to Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Sens. Mary Landrieu and David Vitter. “The secretary should be free to recommend whatever he thinks is correct, but he should not be free to use our names to justify his political decisions.”
Those complaints were similar to those of other scientists.
“Their estimates always seemed to be biased to the best case,” said Joseph Montoya, a biology professor at Georgia Tech. “A number of scientists have experienced a strong push back.”
The inspector general’s report said the administration did not violate federal rules because the executive summary did not say the experts approved of the moratorium and because the department publicly clarified what the experts said and had offered a formal apology.