Snookered in the gulf

Days after the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded and sank in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, officials at BP were still assuring the Obama administration their estimates showed the blown-out well was only leaking about 5,000 barrels of oil a day into the surrounding waters. That was the figure the administration initially used to describe one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history, even though other government experts and independent scientists were already warning that the spill was likely much larger than oil company officials were letting on.

In the weeks and months that followed, the government repeatedly underestimated the size of the spill, giving the public a distorted impression of the extent of the damage while making its own and BP's efforts to contain the oil seem more effective than they actually were. According to a preliminary report released last week by the presidential commission investigating the accident, the true size of the spill was much closer to 60,000 barrels a day, while BP's internal worst-case scenario suggested the spill could be as much as twice that.

Early on, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration sought White House permission to publicize its own worst-case scenario for the accident. But that request was denied by the administration's Office of Management and Budget, which said NOAA's study was flawed and based on incomplete information. In retrospect, it's hard not to see that decision as tainted by politics; the administration clearly had an interest in reassuring the public that it was on top of efforts to cap the well and clean up the damage to coastal regions.

The Obama administration's continued insistence on a low estimate for the amount of oil leaking in the gulf, despite convincing evidence of a larger flow, is deeply disappointing and flies in the face of the president's oft-repeated campaign promises to bring greater transparency and accountability to government. In this case, White House's deliberate withholding of evidence by both outside scientists and its own experts made the administration in effect seem complicit in a cover-up. For all the talk of rejecting the previous administration's politics-over-facts attitude, the commission's report suggests that in this instance what we got was simply more of the same. That's hardly "change we can believe in."

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