NOAA Declines to Probe Vast Underestimate of BP Spill

For Immediate Release

NOAA Declines to Probe Vast Underestimate of BP Spill

“Cut & Paste Error” Accepted as Basis for Hiding True Spill Rate in Official Reports

WASHINGTON - The federal agency responsible for misrepresenting estimates for the 2010 BP Gulf oil spill will not investigate the errors, even though numbers presented to the public and decision-makers were less than half the true flow rate, according to documents posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) documenting the official response to its scientific integrity complaint on the subject. The President’s National Commission found that the inaccurate low-ball numbers hampered numerous attempts to cap the run-away well and slowed clean-up efforts.

Nearly one year ago, on January 27, 2012, PEER lodged a complaint on the matter with the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) under then-newly adopted scientific integrity policies. The heart of the complaint was that key presentations not only omitted the estimates of a spill rate between 61,000 bpd (barrels per day) and 62,500 bpd, but misled decision-makers to believe that much lower estimates were endorsed by all members of experts on the Flow Rate Technical Group.

In an initial decision dated November 8th, a three-member NOAA panel declined to investigate. The majority of them believed that inadvertent “cut and paste” errors accounted for the deletion of the correct flow rates from key reports and top officials charged with responding to the spill. In the initial decision, two NOAA administrators overruled a NOAA scientist who found –

Official explanation was “difficult to believe”;
There appeared to be a deliberate attempt “to hamper the communication of higher flow rate estimates to key decision makers and to the public”; and
“Further investigation would be necessary” to sort out the discrepancies.

On November 14th, PEER filed a detailed rebuttal to the initial decision pointing out several factual errors, unsupported assumptions and conclusions which required an actual investigation (such as interviewing witnesses) beyond a surface reading of submittals. Rather than address those issues, the panel chair simply forwarded the unaltered initial decision and the PEER rebuttal on November 27 to the designated “deciding official.” In a decision dated December 20th, that official, Robert S Detrick, NOAA Assistant Administrator for the Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research, issued a final decision that no investigation would occur. Detrick concluded that any errors could be excused because they were “produced in the middle of a national emergency, under intense pressure and with very short deadlines.”

“By refusing to investigate this serious, detailed well–supported complaint, NOAA undermines rather than enhances its reputation for scientific integrity,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that this was the first such complaint NOAA has handled under its new rules. “By blocking an investigation, NOAA has grasped for damage control rather than the truth.”

In reviewing the complaint, NOAA officials repeatedly insisted that all communications were confidential and threatened to summarily dismiss the complaint if any information about the review were revealed.

The actual spill rate from the BP Deepwater Horizon catastrophe is the major factor driving the size of multi-billion civil damage awards the company is now facing in court.

“Ironically, the only investigation into the plume science behind this eco-disaster will be by BP’s lawyers, not the federal experts representing the public,” Ruch added.

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Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) is a national alliance of local state and federal resource professionals. PEER's environmental work is solely directed by the needs of its members. As a consequence, we have the distinct honor of serving resource professionals who daily cast profiles in courage in cubicles across the country.

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