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Thursday, December 7, 2023
Courthouse News Service
Thursday, December 7, 2023 | Back issues
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Reports Detail Confusion During Oil Disaster

NEW ORLEANS (CN) - Unjustified optimism on the magnitude of the oil spill and conflict between local and federal officials slowed the response to the Gulf oil disaster, according to one of four draft reports issued this week by a White House oil spill commission. The draft reports fault the federal government's early estimates of the flow of oil from the BP spill, and criticize the Obama administration for its August report that suggested that as much as 75 percent of the oil had been or soon would be dispersed.

"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 commission wrote.

Initial reports estimated that 1,000 barrels a day were spilling into the Gulf.

In the second week, the estimate was increased to 5,000 barrels a day.

The final estimate, after the spill had been capped, was 52,700 to 62,200 barrels of oil a day.

The commission found that part of the problem with the feds' initial low estimates was that no explanation of the methodology used to calculate the flow was given, and the estimates mimicked BP's, even as independent scientists were more accurately estimating the flow.

In April or May, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration wanted to release some of the worst-case scenarios, but it was stopped by the White House Office of Management and Budget, according to one of the draft reports.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs on Thursday said the White House had provided "the most accurate and timely information" on the oil spill as soon as it came available.

The commission criticized the White House for misrepresenting how much oil remained in the Gulf as of August.

After the director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy, Carol Browner, appeared on network news shows on the morning of Aug. 4, to discuss the "static-kill" effort and the conclusions of the White House Oil Budget Team, she erroneously said that 75 percent of the spilled oil in the Gulf was "gone," according to the commission.

The commission's report states that subsequent headlines on Aug. 4 reflected Browner's statements: "'75 percent of oil gone, White House says.' The Oil Budget Team's findings, however, did not support the claim that 75 percent of the oil was 'gone.' The 75 percent not in the 'remaining' category included 'dissolved' and 'dispersed' oil, which was potentially being biodegraded, but was not 'gone,'" according to the draft report.

As of May 27, polls showed that 60 percent of Americans thought the federal government was doing a poor job responding to the spill.

In response, President Barack Obama announced he would triple federal manpower and resources, and National Incident Command staff "believed they needed to buy every skimmer they could find, even though they were hearing that responders on the ground had enough skimmers," according to one of the reports.

The act of deploying boom became a tangible response to the spill, and for that reason, boom became a symbol of how responsive the government was to local communities.

The report states that "Federal responders thought that local people complaining about their lack of boom were missing the big picture; local people thought that federal responders were not paying enough attention to local needs. As a result, boom was eventually distributed according to political imperatives, not operational ones, in part because of distrust from state and local officials as to whether the federal government was adequately considering or addressing their needs during the response."

The commission said the "boom wars never reached a resolution. In many instances, responders knew that in deploying boom they were responding to the politics of the spill rather than the spill itself. They deployed boom along miles and miles of shoreline, and it was not sufficient to prevent oil from washing up on the beaches."

As for the unprecedented 1.84 million gallons of dispersants used to break up the oil, the commission report about the dispersants says the administration made an "acceptable choice," but acknowledges that use of dispersants was an "environmental tradeoff" between possible damage from dispersant toxicity to the oceanic ecosystem and more oil reaching shore.

Dispersants act like detergents to break up oil into small droplets that mix with water.

The commission says that the toxicity of available dispersants has diminished substantially over the past several decades, and that dispersants generally are less toxic than oil or chemically dispersed oil. "However, dispersants and dispersed oil are typically more toxic than oil alone to embryos and larvae."

The dispersant report says that 771,000 gallons were applied at the wellhead, 5,067 feet below the surface. But "Little or no prior testing had been done on the effectiveness and potential adverse environmental consequences of subsea dispersant use, let alone at those volumes," the report states.

"Finally, there is no reason to suppose that all dispersants act in the same manner. They may, depending upon their chemical makeup, have strikingly dissimilar impacts. For example, some evidence indicates that ionic surfactant in Corexit 9527 and 9500 inhibits biodegradation, while their non-ionic surfactants increase biodegradation," according to the dispersant report.

President Obama created the commission to investigate the BP oil spill. Final versions of the reports are expected at the end of the year.

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