International Bird Rescue Research Center/Flickr

I. On Monday, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) announced that they have gotten positive proof of what many of us had been suspecting back in the spring of 2010, that the White House pressured government scientists to lowball how bad the BP Gulf of Mexico blowout really was:

Top Obama officials manipulated scientific analyses of independent experts to seriously lowball the amount of oil leaking from the BP Deepwater Horizon, according to a scientific integrity complaint filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

Documents obtained by PEER through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit 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.

On May 19, 2010, one month after the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, the White House announced creation of a group of experts from academia, industry and government to generate an accurate and independent estimate of the oil leak rate. This group was called the Flow Rate Technical Group (FRTG).

It is important to post the email pointing toward what kind of pressure the FRTG was under at the time (emphases added):

From: McNutt, Marcia [mailto:marcia@xxx] Sent: Saturday, May 29, 2010 10:04 AM To: rileyj@xxx; pmbommer@xxxs; Franklin.Shaffer@xxx; pedro.espina@xxx; aaliseda@xxx; lasheras@xxx; savas@xxx; pdy@xxx; ira.leifer@xxx; Wereley, Steven T. Cc: bill.lehr@xxx; vlabson@xxx Subject: Pending developments

Dear Plume Team:

First, wanted to say that it is terrific that the team is moving forward with providing an upper bound with the new data. 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. It was based on a brief report that Bill, Vic, and I had prepared, and the communications people “thought” that it reflected our results, but it didn’t because they don’t understand what a lower bound is. Bottom line: if you are at a university, do convince some of your best and brightest to go into science communication. Please. Let me give you a flavor of some of the “suggestions” I was getting from the NIC and from the communications people at the White House and DOI as recently as yesterday afternoon as to how to “simplify” our bottom line:

From a NIC Admiral: How about just saying that the range of flow rates is 12,000 to 25,000 barrels per day? (No, because the 25,000 is a LOWER bound, not an UPPER bound….)

From a White House communications person: How about saying that several lines of evidence suggest that the flow is 12,000 to 19,000 barrels per day but that the rate could be as high as 25,000 barrels per day? (No, because the 25,000 is a LOWER bound, not an UPPER bound…)

The message I delivered, with 100 representatives from the media present, was that 3 lines of evidence raised the minimum rate of release to 12,000 barrels per day. Two lines of evidence raised the limit to as high as 19,000 barrels per day. One method determined the rate to be 25,000 barrels per day OR HIGHER. We were still working to improve these estimates and get the upper bound from the flow rate team. This was the least amount of interpretation I could possibly put on the results.

Very few representatives from the media really took the time to understand this. CNN was the best. I want to thank those of you who also took the time to educate the media on the complexity of this situation, and especially to those who did so in a fair and balanced way without trying to cast doubt on the scientific integrity of other groups. We are all after the truth here.In other news, I worked with a wonderfully resourceful Lieutenant here from the Coast Guard, Joe Kusak, and together we have managed to mobilize the Woods Hole experiment to directly image the plume with 1.8MHz imaging sonar and 1200 kHz ADCP. They are at the airport now awaiting a lift on a Coast Guard chopper to the Neptune Skandi where they will be integrated into an ROV to image the plume. We are also trying to get Ti sampling bottles on the ROV. This requires getting the UNOLS safety standards, which the bottles meet, crosswalked to ABS standards, which the workboat ROVs require. As I was chair of UNOLS when the safety standards were written, I recall that there were words in there that the UNOLS standards exceed the ABS standards. Just in case, I have Steve Etchemendy from MBARI standing be to interceed. He was an Alvin pilot, so knows the origin of the safety requirements for the Ti bottles, but also worked for Oceaneering, the workboat operators who need to sign off on the gas sampling.

My view is that the flux from the plume will be captured in a few days’ time with an LMRP cap. It will be good to have the WHOI equipment calibrated to that flux so that if there ever is another blowout in the OCS, we will have calibrated methods for measuring the release from day 1.

Sorry this email got so long. Have to send from my MBARI account as my USGS computer is in service so I am on a loaner and only have bb access to my USGS mail. But thanks again for your service to the FRTG and I look forward to more results.


PEER’s press release on the information goes on (emphasis added):

Using new scientific integrity rules, PEER today filed a complaint charging that the leader of one of the FRTG Teams, Dr. William Lehr of the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), manipulated the scientific results of the FRTG experts throughout the entire crisis to significantly understate the spill rate. Lehr is also the author of the now infamous “Oil Budget Calculator” and a report concluding 75% of the oil was gone from the Gulf by August 2010.

Lehr was leader of one of the most important FRTG teams, the “Plume Team” which analyzed videos of the oil leaks to produce the first estimates.  Three of the 13 Plume Team experts used a technique called Particle Image Velocimetry (PIV) to estimate a leak rate in the range of 25,000 bpd.  But three other experts on the Plume Team reported that PIV was underestimating the size of the leak by more than 50%. Those three experts used a different technology to correctly peg the leak rate at 50,000 to 60,000 bpd.

Yet Lehr did not tell the public or key decision makers that there was a deep split on the Plume Team.

And PEER mentions aspects of the White House manipulations and pressures that have ramifications on the announced “settlement” the government has come up with BP, on spill damages:

In fact, 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.

PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch stated Monday:

“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.”

Mother Jones and Forbes covered the story Monday.  Here’s Kate Sheppard for Mother Jones, in her conclusion, with an update:

The government was also criticized for its handling of an August 2010 report on where the oil went, for which Lehr also served as the lead scientist. (I’ve requested comment from NOAA and the White House, and will update this post to reflect that when I receive it.)

UPDATE: Scott Smullen, a spokesman for NOAA, said it is “not appropriate to comment” on this matter because it is still in litigation.

It’s not entirely clear from PEER’s release, though, what was real reason for the inaccurate figures—a single scientist giving inaccurate information, the White House pressuring him to do so, or the White House screwing up the reporting of the figures. Whatever it was, it resulted in the public getting a dramatically inaccurate impression about the size of the spill.

Here’s John McQuaid for Forbes:

In the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon explosion, it took weeks before the public got a decent estimate for the amount of oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico.  BP claimed not to care (it was supposedly focused on stopping the oil, not estimating how much there was). And from the White House on down, government officials seemed downright incurious about getting an accurate figure out there. So for weeks, a placeholder estimate of 5,000 barrels per day was the official figure, even though pretty much everyone knew it was wrong. Ultimately, the figure turned out to be ten times higher.

Now we have some insight into what went wrong. An email released by the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) recounts the back-and-forth between scientists trying to estimate the flow of oil and the people at the White House and other entities doing political damage control.

Basically, political damage control won out over accuracy in the form of persistent, and wrong under-estimations.

Not surprisingly, there are no comments at the Forbes article.  The Mother Jones article has a growing number of them, though.  This one is fairly succinct, and hits on points important to me in Alaska, as we fight Shell’s plans to drill offshore year-round in the Arctic, and as I’m directly involved in the growing struggle to stop a huge open-pit coal mine on the outskirts of Palmer, and less than four miles directly upwind from my house:

The world can’t sustain this insane global predatory capitalist system anymore. Corporation have their tentacles in all levels of governments around the world. No treaties on climate change will come, no safety standards for drilling and transporting crude oil, no air quality standards for coal burning, and on and on. The corporate barons have ushered in a whole new global tyranny. So get used to this, lies, cover-ups and flat out indifference to the will of the people.

And this one, from the Gulf coast:
They have lied, failed to mention, coverered up, omitted  all real information on the Bp Oil Disaster. I live on the Al. Gulf Coast. Its horrible. Please help us.

II. Bmaz, Dr. Kirk Murphy and I are perhaps the only writers at firedoglake to bring much attention to the very important work done by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

Hats off to Jeff Ruch and his dedicated team!