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The White House Oil Spill Scandal

The preliminary report by the Obama-appointed commission looking into the Gulf oil spill shows not just government incompetence, but possible deception. It is a scandal that should be investigated. Not only does the report say that the government was too slow to react to the spill initially and then might have based its response on political considerations, but it states that senior officials – primarily White House environment czarina Carol Browner – misinformed the public about the cleanup.

By initially underestimating the amount of oil flow and then, at the end of the summer, appearing to underestimate the amount of oil remaining in the Gulf, the federal government created the impression that it was either not fully competent to handle the spill or not fully candid with the American people about the scope of the problem.

Here are the questions that need some answering.

1. Why were the government’s initial estimates of the size of the leak so far off?

How come the government lacked the proper tools to understand what was going on? From the report.

From the outset, estimates from non-governmental sources were significantly higher than  official government estimates.  In at least some instances, the cause of the discrepancy appears to be that non-government scientists relied on more refined or better-established methodologies.

2. Did the government base its response on worst case estimates of the amount of oil leaking instead of the vastly-too-low estimates it was promulgating to the public at the time? The report suggests it may have, but the commission is continuing to investigate.

3. Why did OMB reject a request by NOAA to release the worst case scenario estimates?

The White House, in trying to explain this, is enmeshing the issue within the broader report that NOAA wanted to release, saying the overall report was not about “flow rates” but instead about the potential shoreline impact of the oil spill. The report failed to talk about steps to mitigate the damage, so OMB rejected its release. But this does not explain why worst case estimates could not have been released independently.

The commission report makes clear that this would have been valuable.

Putting aside the question of whether the public had a right to know the worst-case discharge figures, disclosure of those estimates, andexplanation 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.

4. Why did Carol Browner misrepresent the nation on August 4 about the success in dispersing the oil?

Did she just get it wrong, or was this intentional? Was she attempting to mitigate the worst crisis of the Obama administration by mischaracterizing the “budget” describing what happened to the oil?

This is the biggest problem for the administration, and one journalists should be diving headfirst into probing. If this was a Bush administration appointee, there would be calls for her resignation and conspiracy theories about why she lied, and what the president knew about it.

Let’s look at the White House explanation, by way of an exchange at the daily briefing between ABC’s Jake Tapper and White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs.

TAPPER:  But this is more about communication, about communicating an overly optimistic — whether it was a misunderstanding or not, an overly optimistic prognosis of what was going on in the water.  And the White House has acknowledged that Carol Browner misunderstood, misspoke, what have you.  And I’m wondering if not only does the White House regret that she did that, but that the White House didn’t make more of a point, because there were headlines the next day — 75 percent of the oil gone — to make it clear that she had misspoke.

MR. GIBBS:  Jake, I think we were — I will go back and read it.  I think we were abundantly clear in the briefing that was done in here on the 4th of August exactly what the oil budget represented.  It represented the fact that there was very good news, that oil had biodegraded, that oil had been skimmed, that oil had been burned, that the very worst-case scenarios that many people thought we would be dealing with never came to fruition, largely because of that federal response.

Again, I’m happy to look through the briefing.  Look, I think it is fair to say that Carol probably did hundreds of hours of interviews and may have misspoke once, which is a pretty darn good track record and one that we made sure was accurate certainly just a few hours later.

TAPPER:  But should you have been more precise? Carol Browner gave information that was not — I forget the word that Jonathan used earlier, but not as nuanced as it should have been?

MR. GIBBS:  Again, I would point you to the briefing.  I think the briefing on the 4th was rather clear.

Well, first of all, Mrs. Browner did not during the briefing specifically correct her earlier, incorrect statement that 75 percent of the oil was “gone.” Instead, NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco, also at the briefing, offered the more conservative estimate that “at least 50 percent” of the oil is “gone from the system.”

But even this was misleading, according to the commission report, which indicates a portion of the “gone” oil she refers to”disprersed” and “dissoleved” oil that  “was potentially being biodegraded, but was not ‘gone.'”

But both Lubchenco and Browner went on to incorrectly present the “budget” as a scientific conclusion that had been peer reviewed. Browner was emphatic:

MS. BROWNER:  Can I just add another point?  This has all been — as Dr. Lubchenco said — been subjected to a scientific protocol, which means you peer review, peer review and peer review.

Only problem was, as the commission study makes clear, the budget was not peer reviewed.

The criticism that the Oil Budget was not a peer-reviewed scientific report was accurate. Even the independent scientists that were described as peer reviewers were critical of the report and the way it was presented.


The Oil Budget was simply not designed to explain, or capable of explaining, the “fate of the oil.”  Its purpose was to tell responders how much oil was present for clean-up operations, not to tell the public how much oil was still in Gulf waters. Thus, it did not attempt to quantify biodegradation, or the exact amounts of remaining, dissolved, and dispersed oil, which were not the targets of response actions.

There wasn’t just a one simple mistatement, as Gibbs suggest. There were a series of inaccuracies, that either point to incompetence or a willful effort to mislead.

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6 Responses to The White House Oil Spill Scandal

  1. BP lied. BP mislead the WH about the severity and amount of oil that was polluting the Gulf. BP knew they didn’t have anything on hand to stop the flow and needed to buy time.
    The WH lied about their response to the crisis. They lied about the severity and amount of oil that was polluting the Gulf.
    BP and the WH lied about the oil “disappearing” and the amount of oil that was recovered.
    Firing some hapless employee won’t change anything.