The national oil spill commission released today four reports written by commission staff assessing the government’s response to the gulf oil spill. The reports offer a detailed look at the spill from a number of angles, including the use of chemical dispersants to break up the oil that spewed into the gulf and the efforts of the government’s Unified Command.

One report, “The Amount and Fate of the Oil Spill,” offers many new details on how the government and BP estimated the size of the oil spill in the weeks after the Deepwater Horizon explosion. It suggests that the federal government kept key information from the public in the weeks after the spill, with the White House in at least one case rejecting a request by government scientists to reveal to the public worst case scenario flow rate data.

The report says BP’s initial estimate that 1,000 barrels of oil per day were leaking out of the was essentially pulled out of thin air.

According to the report:

Neither the Coast Guard nor BP divulged the data or methodology behind this estimate. Based on the information we have to date, it appears the figure came from BP without supporting documentation.

What’s more, when the Coast Guard upped the estimate to 5,000 barrels per day days later, it based that figure on an unsolicited letter from a scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who had no expertise in making such estimates:

The NOAA scientist’s 5,000 bbls/day estimate did not take into account the kink leak, and his methodology for estimating the velocity of the leaking oil was imprecise. Further, there is no indication that the scientist had expertise in estimating deep-sea flow velocity from video data or that he used an established or peer-reviewed methodology when doing so. This is not a criticism of the scientist, who made clear his assumptions and that the 5,000 bbls/day figure was a “very rough estimate.” His stated intent in disseminating the estimate was to warn government officials that the flow rate was multiple times greater than 1,000 bbls/day.

Despite the acknowledged inaccuracies of the NOAA scientist‟s estimate, and despite the existence of other and potentially better methodologies for visually assessing flow rate (discussed below), 5,000 bbls/day was to remain the government‟s official flow-rate estimate for a full month, until May 27, 2010.

Despite these estimates, government officials were dealing with the spill based on a worst case scenario flow-rate, which they refused to disclose to the public. That rate changed over time, but was significantly higher than the estimate the Coast Guard gave to the public. Days after the spill, government officials estimated the worst case scenario flow rate to be 162,000 barrels per day. That figure would be lowered significantly over time.

The report says:

But despite the fact that the Unified Command had this information, relied on it for operations, and publicly stated that it was operating under a worst-case scenario, the government never disclosed what its operational scenario was.

In addition, the report says that NOAA wanted to release some of the worst case discharge figures but the White House Office of Management and Budget denied its request.

In conclusion, the report says the lack of information could have fueled distrust of the government’s response to the spill. At the same time, the response “may have benefited from a greater sense of urgency” in the first days after the spill, which could have come about if the worst case scenarios were released publicly.

The report says:

Putting aside the question of whether the public had a right to know the worst-case discharge figures, disclosure of those estimates, and explanation of their role in guiding the government effort, may have improved public confidence in the response. Instead, government officials attempted to assure the public that they were not basing operations on the official flow-rate estimates, while not stating what they were basing operations on instead. That lack of information may have contributed to public skepticism about whether the government appreciated the size of the Deepwater Horizon spill and was truly bringing all of its resources to bear. Moreover, the national response may have benefited early on from a greater sense of urgency, which public discussion of worst-case discharge figures may have generated.

The draft reports, released today, were put together by staff for the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling. The reports, according to the commission, are “preliminary, subject to change and do not necessarily reflect the views either of the commission as a whole or any of its members.” The reports are based in part on confidential interviews with key players in the oil spill response.

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