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Project on Government Oversight

POGO Letter to White House Regarding Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Size

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January 25, 2011

President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20500

Via Facsimile: (202) 456-2461

Dear Mr. President:

The Project On Government Oversight (POGO) is a nonpartisan independent watchdog that champions good government reforms. POGO’s investigations into corruption, misconduct, and conflicts of interest achieve a more effective, accountable, open, and ethical federal government. As such, POGO has a keen interest in addressing the failures of oversight that led to the BP oil disaster, and ensuring accountability in the response to this offshore oil spill, the largest in our nation’s history. This spill has caused enormous economic problems in the Gulf states and for the people living there, continues to threaten vital ecosystems, and will remain a long-term concern for years to come whenever food is harvested from Gulf waters.

POGO has obtained internal emails written by officials involved in handling the crisis, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), and the White House. In these emails, officials discuss developing the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Budget Report (Report). Released last summer, the Report offers conclusions about what happened to the petroleum released in the Gulf oil spill.[1]

Based on emails in our possession at this time, POGO is concerned that the White House may have ignored expert advice from agency officials and pressured scientists to make changes during the development of the Report in order to advance a public relations agenda. In these emails, agency officials describe “pushback” from the White House about Report conclusions. (Attachment A)

When EPA officials expressed concerns about how the effects of chemical dispersants were described, the concerns were ignored or overruled because of the goals of the “communication product” that NOAA was developing with the White House, according to e-mails. An e-mail stated that “the goal is to show chemical dispersion as part of the Federal response to the spill.” (Attachments A and B)

Furthermore, when reporters raised questions last fall about the Report, an Office of Management and Budget spokesman told McClatchy News that White House involvement with federal agencies that developed the Report was “not public relations or presentation.” [2] He added, “We offered them suggestions of ways to improve it and they happily accepted it.”

Such a statement appears to be undermined by the records in our possession.

EPA Science Ignored

Based on emails in our possession at this time, it appears that the technical opinions of scientists at the EPA were ignored. In the case of chemical dispersants, which were being applied to oil that was gushing out a mile below the surface, it appears the White House wanted the public to have more confidence in the effectiveness of these chemicals than the science would allow.

EPA scientists did not feel the science would allow any attempt to quantify the exact effect of these dispersants or to distinguish their effects from the natural dispersion that occurs when oil travels a mile up from the floor of the ocean to the surface.

Regarding the effects of chemical dispersants, an official at the EPA wrote to agency scientists:

The percentages are very rough and should not be considered accurate. We still do not believe we should in a public document try to distinguish between naturally and chemically dispersed oil in the ocean. These calculations are extremely rough estimates, yet when they are put into the press—which we want to happen—they will take on a life of their own. We should combine these two categories. (Attachment A)

Disagreeing with the EPA, an official with the USGS responded:

Based on how NOAA is developing a communication product with the [White House], the dispersion types (Natural & Chemical) will not be combined. We appreciate the case for combining them, however the goal is to show chemical dispersion as part of the Federal response to the spill. (Attachment B)

Defending the professional and scientific opinion of EPA scientists, the EPA official wrote:

I think you are making a mistake on the separate estimates of dispersal but I have no additional arguments other than it is not verifiable and we will be trying to explain it for the rest of our time on this. I will take it up with the white house [sic]. (Attachment A)

We would also note that earlier versions of the report listed an EPA official as one of the federal scientists who created and reviewed the report. (Attachment C) Neither that name, nor the name of any other EPA scientist, appears in the credits of the published Report.[3] It is our understanding that EPA scientists were not completely comfortable with the findings in the published Report.

Public Relations First, Science Second

In a more subtle, but important example of putting an agenda first and science second, the White House glossed over the uncertainties that are often inherent in scientific calculations. Science is not public relations, where complicated issues can be simplified easily. But rather than acknowledging that it was impossible to quantify, with specificity, the likely size of the spill at the time, the White House apparently overruled NOAA’s advice to acknowledge these uncertainties and make public a range.

An early draft of the report sent to the White House stated that the size of the spill should be expressed as “between 3-5 millions barrels.” (Attachment C) A few days later, an official with NOAA wrote to colleagues, “We have received strong pushback from [White House] on the cumulative total used in our graphic being more than the official 4.93 M bbls.” (Attachment A)

Later drafts and the final Report replaced the range of 3-5 million barrels with a more precise figure of 4.9 million barrels (Attachment D), presumably to make it appear the Administration was more in control of the situation than was possible. It should be noted that the White House deserves credit for erring on the side of the larger end of the spectrum of the possible size of the spill.

But it is vital that the public be able to trust the decisions made by scientific agencies—and this trust should not be compromised to advance a public relations agenda. The American people need to know the hard facts, including any uncertainties, in order to make informed decisions.

We are concerned that White House officials may have removed the uncertainty that typically comes with scientific measurements and settled on a more definitive number to make the public feel more comfortable. We feel that the public would be better served by understanding that the government’s handling of the Gulf spill is filled with numerous uncertainties.

We find the White House’s actions troubling, especially given that you campaigned to restore the integrity of science in government policy and have taken laudable steps to do so. During your campaign, you pledged that this would “ensure that decisions that can be informed by science are made on the basis of the strongest possible evidence.”[4] Shortly after taking office, you sent a memo to all heads of departments and agencies on scientific integrity, stating, “Political officials should not suppress or alter scientific or technological findings and conclusions.”[5] And in a December 2010 memo, you gave good guidance to department and agency heads, noting that successful public policy “depends on the integrity of scientific process both to ensure the validity of the information itself and to engender public trust in the Government.”[6]

We feel that it is important that you live up to your own policy for strengthening scientific integrity. Disregarding the opinions of federal scientists and oversimplifying their concerns does not meet this standard.

We thank you for your consideration of our concerns. If you have any questions or records that can help us understand this issue more, please feel free to contact me or Paul Thacker at 202.347.1122.

Sincerely,

Danielle Brian
Executive Director

Paul D. Thacker
Investigator


Endnotes

[1] National Incident Command, BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Budget: What Happened To the Oil?, August 4, 2010.   (Downloaded January 20, 2011) (hereinafter BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Budget: What Happened To the Oil? ); see also: Heather Zichal, “New Report: 74% of Oil in BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill has been Contained or Mitigated,” The White House Blog, August 4, 2010. (Downloaded January 20, 2011)

[2] Renee Schoof and Margaret Talev, “Report: White House squelched release of BP oil spill estimates,” McClatchy Newspapers, October 6, 2010. (Downloaded January 20, 2011)

[3] BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Budget: What Happened To the Oil?

[4] Obama for America, “Investing in America’s Future: Barack Obama and Joe Biden’s Plan for Science and Innovation.” (Downloaded January 20, 2011)

[5] Memorandum from Barack Obama, President of the United States, to the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies, regarding Scientific Integrity, March 9, 2009. (Downloaded January 20, 2011)

[6] Memorandum from John P. Holden, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology and Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, to the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies, regarding Scientific Integrity, December 17, 2010. (Downloaded January 20, 2011)

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