What Did the Oil Spill Commission Say?

Today the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling released four staff working papers that it described as preliminary, subject to change, and not necessarily reflective of the views of any member of the Commission. Notwithstanding that disclaimer, the papers’ criticisms of the Obama administration have gotten considerable publicity.
The Wall Street Journal headlines, “Spill Panel Finds U.S. Was Slow to React,” while Drudge trumpets, “PANEL: Admin was ‘either not competent or not candid’…” That last is an overstatement; here is what Staff Working Paper No. 3 says:

The federal government‟s estimates of the amount of oil flowing into and later remaining in the Gulf of Mexico in the aftermath of the Macondo well explosion were the source of significant controversy, which undermined public confidence in the federal government‟s response to the spill. By initially underestimating the amount of oil flow and then, at the end of the summer, appearing to underestimate the amount of oil remaining in the Gulf, the federal government created the impression that it was either not fully competent to handle the spill or not fully candid with the American people about the scope of the problem.

The Commission’s staff did not necessarily endorse the “impression” of a lack of competence or candor. Nevertheless, this language, in the first paragraph of paper number three, is hardly complimentary to the Obama administration.
The Commission staff criticized the administration rather harshly in one respect. It reported that the administration’s political operatives suppressed information about how bad the oil spill could be. As the Associated Press put it:

The White House blocked efforts by federal scientists to tell the public just how bad the Gulf oil spill could have been.

That is basically correct, I think, although the Commission staff’s report is phrased more circumspectly:

Thus, although there is evidence to suggest that the worst-case discharge figures BP disclosed to the Unified Command and Congress did not conform to its internal worst-case estimates, front-line responders may have based their decision-making on estimates roughly reflecting the magnitude of the spill. But despite the fact that the Unified Command had this information, relied on it for operations, and publicly stated that it was operating under a worst- case scenario, the government never disclosed what its operational scenario was. As a confidential NOAA report drafted on April 28, 2010, noted: “There is no official change in the volume being released but the [Coast Guard] is no longer stating that the release rate is 1,000 barrels a day. Instead they are saying that they are preparing for a worst-case release and bringing all assets to bear.” Responders stuck to this blueprint, stating that, while 1,000 or 5,000 bbls/day were the official best flow-rate estimates, the government was scaling the response to an unquantified worst-case scenario.
The decision to withhold worst-case discharge figures may have been made above the operational level. It is the understanding of the Commission staff that the possibility of releasing the worst-case discharge figures was at least discussed at the Unified Command level. The Commission staff has also been advised that, in late April or early May 2010, NOAA wanted to make public some of its long-term, worst-case discharge models for the Deepwater Horizon spill, and requested approval to do so from the White House’s Office of Management and Budget. Staff was told that the Office of Management and Budget denied NOAA’s request.

The rather incendiary revelation that President Obama’s Office of Management and Budget ordered that NOAA’s worst-case numbers be concealed from the public is attributed in a footnote to “Interviews with government officials.” Presumably scientists and others at NOAA wanted to let it be known that they tried to level with the public, but were blocked by President Obama’s political appointees. If true, this account is consistent with the behavior we have seen from the earliest days of the Obama administration.