NOAA Declines to Probe Vast Underestimate of BP Spill

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NOAA Declines to Probe Vast Underestimate of BP Spill

“Cut & Paste Error” Accepted as Basis for Hiding True Spill Rate in Official Reports

Washington, DC — The federal agency responsible for presenting dramatic underestimates for the 2010 BP Gulf oil spill, the biggest environmental disaster in the nation’s history, will not investigate the errors, according to documents posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) documenting the official response to its scientific integrity complaint on the subject. Spill rate numbers presented to the public and decision-makers at the height of the crisis were less than half the true flow. The President’s National Commission found that the inaccurate low-ball numbers hampered numerous attempts to cap the run-away well and slowed clean-up efforts.

Shortly after the BP Deepwater Horizon blowout, it became evident that the company was presenting absurdly low numbers for the size of the gushing spill. In May 2010, the federal government created a team of experts, the Plume Team of the Flow Rate Technical Group, to develop the first accurate estimates of the oil leak rate. On July 30, 2010, key decision makers convened to hear the Plume Team’s estimates but the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) presentation omitted the two highest (and ultimately accurate) estimates of the oil leak rate from the Plume Team, namely, 61,000 and 62,500 bpd (barrels per day) and misled decision makers to believe that much lower estimates represented the consensus of the Plume Team.

Nearly one year ago, on January 27, 2012, PEER lodged a complaint on the matter with NOAA under then-newly adopted scientific integrity policies. In response to PEER’s complaint, NOAA appointed a three member review panel to determine if the matter needed to be investigated. In an initial decision dated November 8th, a three-member NOAA panel declined to investigate. The majority of them believed that inadvertent “cut and paste” errors accounted for the deletion of the correct flow rates from key reports and top officials charged with responding to the spill. In the initial decision, two NOAA administrators overruled the lone practicing NOAA scientist on the panel who found –

  • Official explanation was “difficult to believe”;
  • There appeared to be a deliberate attempt “to hamper the communication of higher flow rate estimates to key decision makers and to the public”; and
  • “Further investigation would be necessary” to sort out the discrepancies.

On November 14th, PEER filed a detailed rebuttal to the initial decision pointing out several factual errors, unsupported assumptions and conclusions which required an actual investigation (such as interviewing witnesses) beyond a surface reading of submittals.  Rather than address those issues, the panel chair simply forwarded the unaltered initial decision and the PEER rebuttal on November 27 to the designated “deciding official.”  In a decision dated December 20th, that official, Robert S. Detrick, NOAA Assistant Administrator for the Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research, issued a final decision that no investigation would occur.  Detrick concluded that any errors could be excused because they were “produced in the middle of a national emergency, under intense pressure and with very short deadlines.” However, the Final Presentation by the NOAA leader of the Plume Team was more than two weeks after members of the Plume Team submitted their estimates.

In reviewing the complaint, NOAA officials repeatedly insisted that all communications were confidential and threatened to summarily dismiss the complaint if any information about the review was revealed.

“By refusing to investigate this serious, detailed well–supported complaint, NOAA undermines rather than enhances its reputation for scientific integrity,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that this was the first such complaint NOAA has handled under its new rules.  “By blocking an investigation behind closed doors, NOAA appears to value damage control over the truth.”

The actual oil leak rate from the BP Deepwater Horizon catastrophe is the main factor in setting the fines BP will pay under the Clean Water Act and the Oil Pollution Act, fines that could total $50 billion.

“Ironically, the only investigation into the science behind the estimates of the oil leak rate will be by BP’s lawyers, not scientific experts representing the public,” Ruch added.


Look at the PEER complaint

Read the initial decision not to investigate

Examine the PEER rebuttal

See NOAA panel’s decision to punt

Examine final decision not to investigate

View NOAA secrecy warnings

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