Spill Commission Faults Obama Spill Response

WASHINGTON (Dow Jones Newswires), Oct. 6, 2010

The Obama administration's response to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was affected by "a sense of over optimism" about the scale of the disaster that "may have affected the scale and speed with which national resources were brought to bear," the staff of a special commission investigating the disaster finds in papers released Wednesday.

In four papers issued by the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling, commission investigators fault the administration for making inaccurate public statements about a report on the fate of oil spilled by a BP PLC well in the Gulf of Mexico.

The commission papers are also critical of the administration for initially underestimating how much petroleum was flowing into the Gulf. Together, the inaccurate statements created the impression the government "was either not fully competent to handle the spill or not fully candid" about the accident.

The paper faults the administration for taking "an overly casual approach" in calculating, during the spill's second week, that between 1,000 and 5,000 barrels of oil were flowing in to the Gulf.

That estimate - which the government later revised to between between 35,000 and 60,000 barrels a day - was based on a one-page document prepared by a government scientist within six days of the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig, according to a commission staff paper.

The scientist's estimate was based partly on an imprecise estimate of the speed with which the oil was leaking and didn't account for a leak from a kink in the riser above the rig's blowout preventer, according to the spill commission investigators.

"Despite the acknowledged inaccuracies of the [government] scientist's estimate and despite the existence of other and potentially better methodologies for visually assessing flow rate ... 5,000 bbls/day was to remain the government's official flow-rate estimate for a full month until May 27, 2010," the staff paper says. The paper adds that it is "possible that inaccurate flow-rate figures may have hindered the subsea efforts to stop and to contain the flow of oil at the wellhead."

A White House spokesman didn't immediately respond to a request for comment on the paper.

The working paper is one of several released by the commission that examines various aspects of the federal response to the Gulf spill. Another paper released Wednesday suggests the administration was in some ways slow to respond to the accident and then misdirected resources when it realized the American public viewed its response as being inadequate.

While Coast Guard personnel told the commission in interviews that they had enough equipment by the end of May, the president announced around that same time that he would triple the federal manpower to response to the spill. The paper calls this "the arguable overreaction to the public perception of a slow response."

The tripling effort resulted in resources being thrown at the problem in an inefficient way. For example, the commission paper says, the National Incident Command staffers thought they needed to buy every skimmer they could find, even though they were hearing that responders had enough skimmers.

The commission staff also takes the administration to task for having characterized a federal report on the fate of oil as having been subjected to "peer review" by independent scientists. In fact, the commission staff paper says, it is unclear whether any independent scientists actually reviewed the paper prior to its release in August. The paper said that about three-quarters of the oil spilled by the well had broken down or been cleaned up. Those estimates have been challenged as overly rosy by some independent scientists.

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