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Spill Commission Report Details Failures of Administration’s ‘Oil Budget’

A draft report released today by the national oil spill commission provides new details on a much-criticized August assessment by the Obama administration of the “fate of oil” from the Gulf oil spill. While much of the information in today’s report has already come out in press accounts, the report offers the first line-by-line critique of the administration’s assessment.

The Coast Guard, in the days after the April 20 Deepwater Horizon explosion, kept track of the government’s response to the spill on a “simple Microsoft Excel spreadsheet.” As the full picture of the spill emerged, the Coast Guard decided it needed a better way to keep track of the oil that was gushing into the Gulf of Mexico.

Thus, the “Oil Budget,” as it would later become known, was born. But the document was only meant to be used for “operational” purposes, according to the report, not as a public document that would lay out the “fate of oil” in the Gulf, as the Obama administration would later frame it.

According to the commission’s report:

The Oil Budget was never meant to be a precise tool, and its rollout as a scientific report obscured some important shortcomings.

The Oil Budget, which was put together by the Coast Guard’s Oil Budget Calculator Science and Engineering Team, was released on Aug. 4. It gave the first estimate of the amount of oil that spilled into the Gulf, about 4.9 million barrels. But it also obscured what had happened to the oil that spilled into the Gulf by failing to take into account biodegradation — or as the commission’s report says, “the exact amounts of remaining, dissolved, and dispersed oil.”

From today’s report:

The Oil Budget’s failure to account for biodegradation could result in over- or under- estimation of the amount of oil remaining in Gulf waters. On the one hand, oil that the budget classified as “dispersed,” “dissolved,” or “evaporated” is not necessarily gone. Dispersed or dissolved oil may still be present in the water, and even evaporated oil remains in the atmosphere for a short time. … On the other hand, oil that the budget classified as “remaining” is not necessarily still present, as some portion may have already biodegraded.

The spill commission’s report places much of the blame for mischaracterizations of the Oil Budget on White House climate and energy policy coordinator Carol Browner, who exaggerated the Oil Budget’s findings in television interviews.

The report says:

Ms. Browner did not describe the Oil Budget as an operational tool designed to assist responders. Instead, some of her statements presented the budget as a scientific assessment of how much of the oil was “gone”….

In addition, Ms. Browner and [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Administrator Jane Lubchenco] emphasized that the report was “peer-review[ed]” by federal and non-federal scientists. These references to peer review by two senior officials in a White House press briefing likely contributed to public perception of the budget?s findings as more exact and complete than the budget, as an operational tool, was designed to be.

The Oil Budget was not peer reviewed, the report finds. “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 report says.

While scientists were consulted on the Oil Budget, those same scientists took issue with the way the document was characterized by the administration in interviews with oil spill commission staff.

According to the report:

When interviewed, many of these scientists described their contributions in similar terms, but they emphasized the large degree of uncertainty in their work and their impression that they were assisting in the development of an operational tool rather than a public government report. Indeed, it is unclear whether any of the independent scientists actually reviewed the final report prior to its release. In the words of consulting expert Ed Overton, “[t]o a scientist, peer review means something . . . . Clearly it wasn’t a peer review from a scientific perspective.”

Still, the spill commission’s report was not able to analyze the assumptions used in the Oil Budget because the Obama administration refuses to make them public until it completes a comprehensive report on the spill this month.

The commission’s report was released in conjunction with three other reports on the oil spill. The draft reports, released today, were put together by staff for the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling. The reports, according to the commission, are “preliminary, subject to change and do not necessarily reflect the views either of the commission as a whole or any of its members.” The reports are based in part on confidential interviews with key players in the oil spill response.

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