The Obama administration late Wednesday defended the integrity of its estimates — which turned out to be inaccurate — during the summer of how much oil spilled in the Gulf of Mexico, turning over thousands of pages of internal e-mails written by government scientists who worked on the project.
In the e-mails, the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Jane Lubchenco, cautioned a colleague about how to present the government's findings: "I believe we owe it to everyone to provide the best estimates we can where direct measurements are not possible," she wrote. "We also need to be forthright about how certain we are about each number, which we've done."
The e-mails were obtained by The Associated Press under the Freedom of Information Act.
The disclosure Wednesday by the Commerce Department, NOAA's parent agency, was significant because it revealed for the first time e-mails circulated among scientists working behind the scenes on the forecasts of oil in the Gulf. The government released 5,817 pages of files late in the afternoon on the eve of Thanksgiving, traditionally a period when few people are paying attention to news reports because of holiday travel.
Measuring the spill accurately was important to decide how to respond appropriately and to the administration's credibility. But the government didn't arrive at a reliable estimate until June 15, nearly two months after the accident.
The government released the files to news organizations and Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., who with other lawmakers had asked for the records in August. "The public has a right to know right now what is going on in the Gulf of Mexico, and your report should be analyzed by others right now so that we are sure we got it right," Markey told Bill Lehr, a senior NOAA scientist who defended the government's estimates during congressional testimony.
The presidential commission investigating the oil spill concluded last month in an interim report that government mistakes on its estimates led to perceptions that it was incompetent or not candid about the oil spill. It said federal officials underestimated the amount of oil flowing from the runaway well, then also underestimated the amount of oil that had spilled in the Gulf. Early calculations by private researchers, whom BP PLC, the oil company that held the leaking well, and the government tried to discredit, proved to be more accurate.
The panel also previously criticized statements by President Barack Obama's energy adviser, Carol Browner, who mischaracterized on national TV the government's analysis about where the oil went, saying it showed most of the oil was "gone." In a new study published Tuesday, the government itself acknowledged that its oil calculations were never intended to "provide information about the impact of the oil, nor indicate where the oil is now."
The presidential commission separately concluded earlier this week that BP should have made better efforts soon after the accident to measure the oil to find ways that might actually have stopped the leak. It turned out, the company's unsuccessful "top kill" and "junk shot" efforts in May to plug the well would only have worked on a smaller-size leak.
Nov. 23 report on government's oil estimates: http://tinyurl.com/255wezn
Presidential Commission's Oct. 6 report on government's oil estimates: http://tinyurl.com/26hj3qq
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