The OMB, headed by the anti-environment conservative Peter Orszag, censored NOAA's worst case estimates of the BP spill.National oil spill commission staff report PDF
It is the understanding of the Commission staff that the possibility of releasing the worst-case discharge figures was at least discussed at the Unified Command level.46 The Commission staff has also been advised that, in late April or early May 2010, NOAA wanted to make public some of its long-term, worst-case discharge models for the Deepwater Horizon spill, and requested approval to do so from the White House‟s Office of Management and Budget.47 Staff was told that the Office of Management and Budget denied NOAA‟s request.48
Now we have a clue about why Peter Orszag resigned.
The OMB was given control over the release of information on the catastrophic BP spill. No wonder Admiral Allen looked so hapless. He wasn't calling the shots. NOAA wasn't calling the shots. EPA wasn't calling the shots.
The OMB, an organization without scientific or environmental expertise was allowed to control the information released on the oil spill. OMB had no competence on oil spills. The information released catastrophically underestimated the amount of oil released. From the draft report.
How much oil was leaking into the Gulf of Mexico? For responders, politicians, and the public, the leaking well‟s "flow rate" quickly became a crucial and controversial question. Throughout the first month of the spill, government responders officially adhered to what we now know were low and inaccurate estimates. Non-governmental scientists, on the other hand, used the small amount of publicly available flow data to generate estimates that have proven to be much more accurate. To make forward-looking recommendations, it is important to understand how this came to pass.
The initial government scientific estimate was admittedly crude, but was an honest estimate. However, even though outside experts were coming up with more accurate estimates, the government stuck with the inaccurate low ball estimate.
The NOAA scientist‟s 5,000 bbls/day estimate did not take into account the kink leak, and his methodology for estimating the velocity of the leaking oil was imprecise.17 Further, there is no indication that the scientist had expertise in estimating deep-sea flow velocity from video data or that he used an established or peer-reviewed methodology when doing so. This is not a criticism of the scientist, who made clear his assumptions and that the 5,000 bbls/day figure was a "very rough estimate."18 His stated intent in disseminating the estimate was to warn government officials that the flow rate was multiple times greater than 1,000 bbls/day.19
Despite the acknowledged inaccuracies of the NOAA scientist‟s estimate, and despite the existence of other and potentially better methodologies for visually assessing flow rate (discussed below), 5,000 bbls/day was to remain the government‟s official flow-rate estimate for a full month, until May 27, 2010.20
The details from the draft report show how the government failed to improve their estimates of the size of the spill.
- Non-governmental Estimates
From the outset, estimates from non-governmental sources were significantly higher than official government estimates. In at least some instances, the cause of the discrepancy appears to be that non-government scientists relied on more refined or better-established methodologies.
a. Estimates Based on Satellite Imagery
The first independent flow-rate estimate surfaced on April 27, 2010, at the time the official estimate was 1,000 bbls/day. Using publicly available satellite images, John Amos, the founder of SkyTruth.org, estimated the leak size to be at least five times the government estimate—5,000 to 20,000 bbls/day.21 Amos generated the low number in his range by multiplying the surface area of the spill by what he considered the minimum thickness for oil to be visible on the Gulf‟s surface (1 micron). He then generated the high number by relying on a BP statement that 3% of the slick was significantly thicker (100 microns). Amos‟s estimate was conservative (i.e., low) in assuming that none of the oil had burned with the rig, been collected by response crews, evaporated, dispersed, or was then below the surface.22 Within days, Amos‟s estimate appeared in the national press.23
On May 1, 2010, Dr. Ian MacDonald (a Florida State University oceanographer) published a new estimate on SkyTruth.org. Based on a Coast Guard map that tracked the spill‟s surface size and classified the color of the surface oil throughout, Dr. MacDonald generated a flow estimate of 26,500 bbls/day using the Bonn Convention. Like Amos, he assumed that none of the oil had burned, evaporated, dispersed, been skimmed, or was then below the surface.24
Both independent scientists estimated the spill‟s volume from the visual appearance of the surface slick—the same general method used by the NOAA scientist who generated the 10,000 barrel surface volume estimate. Experts note that such methods are not reliable for estimating the volume of large spills, due in part to the difficulty of accurately determining oil thickness from aerial data.25 Dr. MacDonald, however, did at least use an established protocol—the Bonn Convention—for determining surface oil thickness. Similarly, Amos explained the basis for his minimum and maximum assumptions regarding thickness. By contrast, the NOAAsurface volume estimate appears to have been based on an unexplained assumption that 99% of the spill was 0.1 microns thick, while the remainder was 100 microns thick.26 Thus, while estimating volume from surface appearance may be inherently unreliable, the non-government scientists appeared to make greater efforts to be clear and rigorous in their methodologies, possibly leading their estimates to be closer to the actual flow rate (though still far off).
After Congress forced BP to make the video stream available to the public, independent scientists and engineers determined more accurate estimates of oil flow rates. However, BP dismissed the (more accurate) independent estimates.
All of these non-government figures estimated the total flux being released from the end of the riser, which includes both oil and natural gas.35 If we were to assume the then-current understanding that the flux was 50% oil, the Crone, Chiang, and Wereley estimates would be, respectively: 25,000-50,000 bbls/day; 10,000-50,000 bbls/day; and 36,090 bbls/day. The Crone, Chiang, and Wereley estimates did not include flow from the kink leak, for which there was then no public data.
BP attempted to dismiss the Crone, Chiang, and Wereley estimates. It told National Public Radio on May 13, 2010, that "there‟s no way to estimate the flow coming out of the pipe accurately."36 Five days later, BP released the first video of the kink leak and an initial estimate that the flux was about 50% oil. Testifying before Congress the next day, Dr. Wereley estimated that the kink leak was producing a flow of roughly 25,000 bbls/day (±20%) of total flux. Adding that figure to his previous estimate of flow from the end of the riser (72,179 bbls/day of flux), he arrived at a total flow rate of approximately 50,000 bbls/day of oil.37
The Crone, Chiang, and Wereley estimates proved to be significantly more accurate than the official estimates. The government‟s 5,000 bbls/day figure, derived from the same type of visual observation as the Crone, Chiang, and Wereley estimates, appears to have been based on a cruder methodology than at least Crone‟s and Wereley‟s. It is possible that the early official flow estimates would have been more accurate if the government had either enlisted greater in-house scientific expertise, or enlisted outside scientific expertise by making available the data on which government estimates were based. The government appears to have taken an overly casual approach to the calculation and release of the 5,000 bbls/day estimate—which, as the only official estimate for most of May, took on great importance.
The commission staff concludes that objective independent experts need to be contacted in future spills to estimate the flow rates of oil and gas.
Suggestions for the Commission’s Consideration:
The Commission may wish to recommend adoption of policies or procedures to ensure that, in a federal spill response, the federal government dedicates appropriate scientific expertise to initial spill volume estimates, to the extent that it wishes to release such estimates.
The Commission may wish to recommend that, where possible without compromising confidentiality or operations, the federal government disclose the methodology and/or data on which its spill volume estimates are based either to the public or to outside scientific experts. Such information would allow outside scientists to generate estimates or to offer informed criticism of the government‟s work, helping to refine and to increase public confidence in official estimates.
Then on page 10 the staff report reveals that OMB, not the agencies with technical competence, controlled the release of critical information. The report concludes that withholding the key information undermined public confidence in the government's response to the spill.
The decision to withhold worst-case discharge figures may have been made above the operational level. It is the understanding of the Commission staff that the possibility of releasing the worst-case discharge figures was at least discussed at the Unified Command level.46 The Commission staff has also been advised that, in late April or early May 2010, NOAA wanted to make public some of its long-term, worst-case discharge models for the Deepwater Horizon spill, and requested approval to do so from the White House‟s Office of Management and Budget.47 Staff was told that the Office of Management and Budget denied NOAA‟s request.48
The Commission may wish to consider recommendations that encourage government responders to disclose information about the scenarios under which they are operating—in this case, the operational worst-case discharge estimates. Putting aside the question of whether the public had a right to know the worst-case discharge figures, disclosure of those estimates, and explanation of their role in guiding the government effort, may have improved public confidence in the response. Instead, government officials attempted to assure the public that they were not basing operations on the official flow-rate estimates, while not stating what they were basing operations on instead. That lack of information may have contributed to public skepticism about whether the government appreciated the size of the Deepwater Horizon spill and was truly bringing all of its resources to bear. Moreover, the national response may have benefited early on from a greater sense of urgency, which public discussion of worst-case discharge figures may have generated.49
My conclusion is that OMB has no business being involved in matters of science, engineering or the environment. OMB's needs to be returned to dealing with budgetary matters only. OMB was used by Bush and Cheney to stop the EPA from implementing much needed environmental rules to enforce legislation on the books. There is strong evidence here that OMB was serving BP's interest, not the public interest.
Orszag's resignation was the first step.
Now Republican operatives like Orszag need to be cleaned out of OMB.