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Was Rosy Gulf Oil Report A White House PR Move?

Questions Mount About White House's Overly Rosy Report On Oil Spill

Dan Froomkin

From left, Carol Browner, assistant to the President for energy and climate change, NOAA chief Jane Lubchenco, and national incident commander of the BP oil spill Thad Allen, update reporters at the White House, in Washington, Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2010. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Two congressmen on Thursday questioned why the Obama administration made a major announcement about what happened to the oil in the Gulf of Mexico earlier this month without the science to back it up .

Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Ed Markey demanded that NOAA surrender
the data and algorithms behind its increasingly controversial estimate,
so that independent scientists could assess the credibility of its
conclusion that the vast majority of the oil BP spilled in the Gulf is

At a subcommittee hearing he chaired, Markey said the report was premature, has led to false confidence, and could be flat wrong. See my story on the hearing.

And California Republican Rep. Darrell Issa accused the White House
of releasing the report prematurely for PR purposes. "This is yet
another in a long line of examples where the White House's
pre-occupation with the public relations of the oil spill has superseded
the realities on the ground," the ranking member of the House oversight
committee said in a press release.

"It is deeply troubling that White House officials apparently
preempted the completion and review of a scientific study on the oil
spill by NOAA scientists in order to tout conclusions that many experts
believe may be deeply flawed."

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration director Jane
Lubchenco, meanwhile, dismissed the growing controversy as "a tempest in
a teapot."

"The report and the calculations that went into it were reviewed by
independent scientists," Lubchenco said in a conference call to
reporters. "And we are pulling together the full background information
that would go into a more comprehensive report." The due date for that
report: about two months.

Bill Lehr, a senior scientist at NOAA and one of the lead authors of the report, continued to defend its findings in his testimony
at Markey's congressional hearing. But Lehr also made clear that the
report -- called an "oil budget" -- was put together in a hurry and
that its purpose was to inform the emergency response, not the general

As a result, it focused on oil that could still potentially be
recovered, he said, and it also had not yet been thoroughly documented
or reviewed.

On Wednesday, Lehr held a conference call with congressional
investigators. Contradictory reports have emerged about what exactly he

According to two congressional sources who were on the call, Lehr
said the decision to release the oil budget to the media was made by the
White House -- not by administration scientists. Lehr reportedly also
said that scientists had concerns about it being released.

But two other congressional sources who were on the call, and who
also talked to the Huffington Post, said they did not recall Lehr making
any such statements.

At Thursday's hearing, Lehr didn't specifically address who decided
to make the report public. He refused to answer reporters' questions as
he left the hearing room. And NOAA public affairs officials declined to
make him available afterwards.

But Shannon Gilson, a spokeswoman for the Commerce Department,
released the following statement on behalf on NOAA, which is part of
Commerce: "Dr. Lubchenco and the Incident Command decided to release the
estimate to the American people given the heightened interest in the
fate of the oil. Any speculation that Bill Lehr suggested otherwise on a
call with Congressional staffers is false."

However it came to pass, the oil budget was leaked on August 3 to New York Times reporter Justin Gillis, whose credulous account led to a deluge of similarly unquestioning media coverage the following day.

Coming along with the capping of the well, it was a public relations
coup for a White House eager to get the oil spill story off the front
pages, reassert control over a narrative that had gotten away from them,
and calm fears.


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The White House also spun the report in a particularly favorable way.
Deciding whether most of the oil is gone or not depends primarily on
one's views about oil that's dissolved or been dispersed. When the
report came out, administration officials encouraged the view that the
approximately 50 percent of oil estimated to be dissolved or dispersed
no longer posed a risk -- was, essentially, gone. By contrast, some
independent scientists have been saying for months that subsurface oil is likely causing massive environmental damage, even if it can't easily be seen.

Since the oil budget went public, several independent scientists have
called for the release of its supporting data. Others have reached
their own, conflicting conclusions.

One group organized by the Georgia Sea Grant this week calculated that 70 to 79 percent of the oil remains underwater, and concluded that "the media interpretation of the report's findings has been largely inaccurate and misleading."

Scientists from the University of South Florida have found oil deep on the Gulf seafloor that they say may be more toxic to marine microorganisms than previously believed.

And in a major, peer-reviewed article in Science magazine, scientists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
on Thursday described their discovery in June of a plume of
hydrocarbons that is at least 22 miles long and more than 3,000 feet
below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico. That's about the size of

Furthermore, the scientists found that contrary to the NOAA report,
the oil was not "biodegrading quickly"-- at least not at that depth.

What seems increasingly clear is that the government's oil budget did
not come close to meeting the kinds of scientific standards that
Lubchenco herself had previously cited as the reason she for so long declined to officially acknowledge the existence of massive amounts of subsurface oil.

Lehr's statement that the oil budget was initially only intended for
responders explains a lot. For instance, its lack of emphasis on
subsurface oil is consistent with the fact that, as Lehr said, "it's not
available for response, which was the purpose of the oil budget
numbers." That's also why the report didn't address how much poisonous
methane gas was released by the well, he said.

But that doesn't mean all that oil and gas doesn't continue to do
untold damage to the ecosystem. Under questioning by Markey, Lehr
acknowledged that most of the oil is still in the Gulf -- even "the
stuff that evaporated into the atmosphere is still in the environment,"
he said.

So why, then, was the report misleadingly pitched to the media and
the public as the authoritative answer to the question: where did the
oil go? And who exactly made that call? Whose interests did that serve?

Why did White House environmental advisor Carol Browner go on the
morning shows and announce: "More than three-quarters of the oil is
gone. The vast majority of the oil is gone"? Why did she and Lubchenco tell reporters
in the White House briefing room about their "high degree of
confidence" and "so much certainty"? Why did they insist that the study
had been peer reviewed, when it hadn't?

And why does NOAA still refuse to provide independent scientists and
the public with any additional information about how they arrived at
those numbers in the first place?

Those questions remain.

Sam Stein contributed to this report.


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