A Harsh Verdict on Obama’s BP Spill Response

The big papers stuff news today that an Obama-appointed commission on the BP oil spill is pretty scathing on the administration’s response to the disaster.

The New York Times drops it on A20, while The Wall Street Journal and Washington Post and USA Today go A6 (although the Journal does lead its World-Wide news box with it).

This is a big story. The commission found that the administration underestimated the amount of oil gushing from the BP well and that that may have slowed the administration’s response to the threat. The Journal:

But the spill commission investigators write that “for the first ten days of the spill, it appears that a sense of over optimism affected responders.”

The commission staff said it is “possible that inaccurate flow-rate figures may have hindered the sub-sea efforts to stop and to contain the flow of oil at the wellhead.”

On top of that it found that the Obama administration “appears to have misdirected resources in its efforts to counter the public view that its response was inadequate.”

And it misled the public when it declared in August that three-quarters of the oil had been scooped up. The Times:

Carol Browner, the White House coordinator for energy and climate change, declared on Aug. 4: “I think it’s also important to note that our scientists have done an initial assessment and more than three-quarters of the oil is gone. The vast majority of the oil is gone.”

But the commission staff members said the government’s own data did not support such sweeping conclusions, which were later scaled back. A number of respected independent researchers have concluded that as much as half of the spilled oil remains suspended in the water or buried on the seafloor and in coastal sludge. And it will be some time before scientists can paint an accurate picture of the ecological damage.

For more than a month, it kept telling people that only 5,000 barrels a day was leaking, when the real number was twelve times as much—60,000 barrels. The Washington Post on that:

The commission’s staff said a West Virginia-based group called SkyTruth, which analyzes satellite data, was the first to publish an independent estimate of the spill’s size.

On Wednesday, John Amos, the group’s founder, said there are two possible explanations for the government’s inaccurate numbers. One, he said, is “that the government was intentionally underestimating it, for whatever reason - versus the possibility that they just didn’t really know any better. Those are the two possibilities, and neither one is particularly attractive.”

The Post gets it on the importance of this report and what it means about the Obama administration:

The commission’s analysis raises questions about two key promises of the Obama administration - that its response to the spill would reflect its commitments to rigorous science and to government transparency.

It also raises questions about its competence and its honesty.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.