Washington, DC — 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).
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. In the Plume Team’s Final Report, the body of which Lehr wrote, he reported that “most of the Plume Team used PIV” which produced “consistent and accurate” estimates. These underestimates were repeated to the public and media. When experts on the FRTG complained to Dr. Marcia McNutt, Director of the U.S. Geologic Survey, she cited pressure from the White House, saying in a May 29 email that:
“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.”
Throughout the Plume Team’s work it was widely thought that physical measurement of the leak was not possible and therefore it was assumed that Plume Team estimates of the leak rate would be used to assess damages in future litigation. Thus, manipulating spill rate estimates down to 25,000 bpd instead of 60,000 bpd could have reduced damages paid by BP and/or other responsible parties by tens of billions of dollars. Even more significantly, the President’s National Commission concluded that underestimates of the size of the spill hampered clean-up efforts and caused numerous attempts to cap the well to fail.
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.
“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.”