Politics & Policy

BP Spill: Numbers vs. Hysteria

Contrary to accusations by the media and environmental groups, the Coast Guard used worst-case scenarios from the start.

The controversy over whether the Obama administration and BP conspired to hide the size of the Deepwater Horizon spill still has legs, even though, as we reported in early August, the final official numbers, up to 62,000 barrels a day, were devastating to BP. Last Thursday, independent scientists at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty labs released a report that largely backs up the government’s final claims. Earlier, shifting estimates, including lowball numbers of 1,000 to 5,000 barrels leaking per day, provoked a lawsuit by an environmental group, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. The group charged that the Obama administration and political appointees were withholding documents that would reveal why it issued that estimate.

Good luck with that lawsuit. I would never misunderestimate the stupidity or mendacity of political appointees — nor of the media.  But what is striking as I’ve gone back through the record is that it was clear early on that the dispute over the size of the spill, like a lot of the coverage, was overblown by media cheap shots at changing estimates.

Why? The “official” size didn’t matter initially. The media, to coin a phrase, misundereported the fact that lowball estimates were never used in planning the response. Practically from day one, the Coast Guard’s official planning number, which led to decisions such as how much boom and how many skimmers would be needed, was 100,000 barrels a day. That’s significantly higher than the 62,000 barrels or less per day the government now says was spilled. This conservative overresourcing (for example, some areas had double and triple layers of boom) might partly account for the surprisingly light damage the spill did to wetlands, as even the New York Times is finally reporting.

The catastrophic potential of the well was never secret. The pre-drilling “well plan,” which BP was required by law to file with the Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service, said that up to 162,000 barrels a day could flow in a blowout. Less than a week after the rig sank, the Coast Guard put its contingency plan in place to contain up to 100,000 barrels a day, according to logs obtained by the Center for Public Integrity, even as the “official” estimate stood at 1,000 barrels. The much larger contingency estimate may well have originated with BP, which at the time was being roped into the National Incident Command system, a requirement for the “responsible party” under relevant law. Independent oil-industry sources came up with similar numbers.

As the Coast Guard morphed into the National Incident Command, press releases, including statements by President Obama, repeatedly stressed that planning was for “worst-case estimates” and was unaffected by the 1,000-to-5,000-barrel figure or by numbers emanating from the Flow Rate Technical Group. It’s hard to be sure, as much information is disappearing behind websites’ pay walls, but it appears that CNN’s Candy Crowley was one of the few who thought to ask what the “worst case” amounted to, and how it compared to the response. On May 2, both Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and National Incident Commander Adm. Thad Allen told her that100,000 barrels per day was what they were planning to contain. This wasn’t a number anyone went out of his way to publicize, but it was definitely in the public record.

The New York Times and other outlets, meanwhile, managed to write stories on May 4 about politicians excoriating BP for withholding the worst-case data; apparently these journalists didn’t notice that the response was being shaped by those very worst-case figures. And it was treated as a major scandal when, as late as June 20, Rep. Ed Markey (D., Mass.) announced he had subpoenaed documents in which BP estimated the spill could be as large as 100,000 barrels a day.

The president, when he addressed the nation on the subject, should have used his megaphone to emphasize the precise amount of oil in the generous planning estimate. He should have explained what the stakes were, and what the nation was up against. Failure to convey this information contributed to the public panic surrounding the spill. Scientists who were making tentative and inconclusive findings about underwater oil short-circuited peer review to warn of thousands of barrels of oil in underwater “plumes.” As one prominent scientist told me this week, that’s a scary amount of oil when it looked as if the government was bumbling its way to a 1,000-to-5,000-barrel daily budget. That the government was preparing to contain 100,000 barrels a day came as news to him. Reporters, meanwhile, amplified the concern of scientists into something bordering on hysteria.

BP, unsurprisingly, was being treated like a defendant and was acting like one. Spokesmen said as late as May 15 that they couldn’t tell how much oil was coming out of the well, and thus were sticking with their story of 5,000 barrels as the “real” output. The Miranda strategy will probably serve them well in court.

So why was the government bothering with spill estimates at all? It appears, based on published comments from Admiral Allen and others, that the National Incident Command wanted the Flow Rate Technical Group to come up with a definitive number to be used at a later date for potential litigation and to gauge how much oil was in the gulf for final cleanup. A spokesman for the group has not responded to my calls, but the new findings from Lamont-Dougherty will reinforce its position.

— Lou Dolinar is a retired columnist and reporter for Newsday. He is currently in Mobile, Ala., working on a book about what really did happen in the Deepwater Horizon spill.

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