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Oil Spill Commission Hits Feds on Flow Rate, Dispersant, How Much Oil Is Left

The presidential commission investigating BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster found that a number of public failures undermined public confidence in the federal government.

After the release of four reports by the presidential commission investigating BP's Deepwater Horizon oil spill, much of the attention has been paid to criticism that the administration had inaccurately estimated the amount of oil involved -- both in gauging flow rate early in the crisis and in assessing how much oil was left over after the well was capped.

But that's not the only issue on which the panel focused. For example, as Mother Jones has pointed out, another report focused entirely on dispersant use.

We've read through the reports and pulled out the commission's findings in several key areas.

On the much-criticized flow rate, the commission noted that the government had taken "an overly casual approach to the calculation."

Despite a recognition that the problem was more serious than the official flow rates suggested, responders continued to assert that they were the best numbers available. The commission reported:

As a confidential NOAA report drafted on April 28, 2010, noted: "There is no official change in the volume being released but the [Coast Guard] is no longer stating that the release rate is 1,000 barrels a day. Instead they are saying that they are preparing for a worst-case release and bringing all assets to bear." Responders stuck to this blueprint, stating that, while 1,000 or 5,000 bbls/day were the official best flow-rate estimates, the government was scaling the response to an unquantified worst-case scenario.

The commission also suggests that the government should have been more proactive about determining the flow rate, noting that BP "may benefit from obfuscating or underestimating" the flow rate, because it would mean higher liability:

For example, because the volume of oil released directly affects BP's liability under the Clean Water Act, the government may have had particular reason to have its own or independent scientists determine the flow rate, rather than relying on estimates created by scientists employed by the responsible party.

On dispersants: The government "was not adequately prepared for the use of dispersants" to respond to a spill, and it had no excuse.

"The oil and gas industry has been extracting high volumes of oil from reservoirs in the Gulf for twenty years. This is not a new, unanticipated development," the commission noted.

The commission did credit National Incident Commander Thad Allen and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson for their decisions given the circumstances. But it said that if the government had been adequately prepared, they could have had more information on which to base their decisions, rather than continually referencing the lack of research:

Because federal agencies had failed to plan adequately, they did not possess the scientific information that officials most certainly would have wanted to guide their choices.

The commission also concluded that dispersants were still widely used despite an EPA order. The EPA issued a directive in May ordering BP to cut back on dispersant use underwater, and to stop using it entirely on the surface, except in "rare cases" when an exemption is granted.

"The ‘rare cases' were not very rare," the commission noted. (That's a bit of an understatement. After all, we'd noted that the company requested and received those exemptions almost every day.)

The commission made no attempt to assess whether, on balance, the decision to use dispersants paid off. However, the commission noted "uncertainties" about the benefits of dispersant use. Regarding claims that dispersants helps oil biodegrade faster, it wrote the following: "Some studies have found that dispersants have no effect on the biodegradation rate or may even inhibit biodegradation." (The EPA has has maintained that the use of dispersants was a "wise decision.")

BP and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, as we've noted, have recently taken to local schools to "dispel myths" about dispersants and subsurface oil.

A rosy government report from August asserting that most of the spilled oil was gone -- was oversold.

Even though both NOAA chief Jane Lubchenco and White House energy adviser Carol Browner said the August report was peer reviewed, yesterday's report noted that it wasn't:

The criticism that the Oil Budget was not a peer-reviewed scientific report was accurate….

Certain statements by administration officials to the effect that the Oil Budget was a "peer-review[ed]" scientific report, and that it concluded 75% of the oil was "gone," were inaccurate and led to news reports that were misleading. In fact, the Oil Budget was a rough operational tool, and its findings were neither as clear nor as reassuring as the initial rollout suggested.

The heads of NOAA and the White House Office of Management and Budget issued a joint statement responding to the yesterday's reports.

"The federal government response was full force and immediate, and the response focused on state and local plans and evolved when needed," the statement read.

Federal officials and BP executives have both maintained that the low-balled flow rate estimates did not influence the response effort. (But in a generic response plan BP filed before the blowout, BP had said determining a spill's size and volume was "critical to initiating and sustaining an effective response.")

The commission concluded that despite these assertions, initial optimism about the spill "may have affected the scale and speed with which national resources were brought to bear."

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