The Obama administration blocked efforts by government scientists to tell the public just how bad the Gulf oil spill could become and made other missteps that raised questions about its competence during the crisis, according to a commission appointed by the president to investigate the disaster.
In documents released on Wednesday, the national oil spill commission's staff describes "not an incidental public relations problem" by the White House in the aftermath of the April 20 accident.
Among other things, the report says, the administration made erroneous early estimates of the spill's size, and President Barack Obama's senior energy adviser went on national TV and mischaracterised a government analysis by saying it showed most of the oil was "gone" when it actually said it could still be there.
"By initially underestimating the amount of oil flow and then, at the end of the summer, appearing to underestimate the amount of oil remaining in the Gulf, the federal government created the impression that it was either not fully competent to handle the spill or not fully candid with the American people about the scope of the problem," the report says.
The administration disputed the commission findings, saying senior government officials "were clear with the public what the worst-case flow rate could be."
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) chief Jane Lubchenco and White House budget director Jeffrey Zients pointed out that in early May, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen told the public that the worst-case scenario could be more than 100,000 barrels a day, or 4.2 million gallons.
For the first time, the documents - which are preliminary findings by the panel's staff - show that the White House was directly involved in controlling the message as it struggled to convey that it, not BP, was in charge of responding to what eventually became the biggest offshore oil spill in US history.
Citing interviews with government officials, the report reveals that in late April or early May, the White House budget office denied a request from NOAA to make public its worst-case estimate of how much oil could spew from the blown-out well. The Unified Command, the government team in charge of the spill response, also was discussing the possibility of making the numbers public, the report says.
The White House budget office has traditionally been a clearing house for administration domestic policy.
The report shows "the political process was in charge and science really does not have the role that was touted," said Christopher D'Elia, dean of environmental studies at Louisiana State University. But Jerry Miller, head of the White House science office's ocean subcommittee, said that scientific conference on the oil spill that he didn't think the budget office censored NOAA.