Commentary: Did OMB Block Worst-Case Estimates of Oil Spill?

10/27/2010

A working paper by the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling has ignited a controversy about the role of the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in controlling information about the spill. The working paper alleges that, soon after the April 20 explosion of BP's Deepwater Horizon rig, OMB blocked plans to disclose the government's worst-case models of the spill. The administration's response to the allegations leaves several key questions without clear answers, which can only be resolved by disclosing the drafts and feedback through which these critical documents were developed.

To aid in the spill response, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) prepared worst-case models of where the spilling oil might go. Unnamed government officials informed the commission that NOAA wanted to release the models to the public in late April or early May, but that OMB denied permission to release the models. The allegations have prompted charges of censorship by OMB.

OMB and NOAA acknowledged reviewing the models and providing feedback to ensure they "reflected the best known information at the time." According to OMB and NOAA, the feedback was incorporated, and the models were eventually released in July, representing an "improved analysis."

However, the commission contended that the models released in July were different from those prepared in late April or early May and were based on information that was not available until June.

In its responses to the controversy, the administration has left some ambiguities; to rebuild the public's trust, these should be clarified.

First and perhaps foremost, the administration vigorously denied claims that OMB blocked release of the estimates. At the same time, it acknowledged that OMB provided comments that influenced the report. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs declared that "no information was altered. No information was withheld." But he stated that "OMB sent the report back to NOAA to include" additional information in the modeling because NOAA's draft "wasn't an accurate representation." At the same time, he claimed that "none of the science in any of the report was changed."

This distinction is echoed throughout the administration's carefully worded statements and replies on this issue, prompting the questions: What was the precise nature of OMB's "feedback"? If OMB did not deny NOAA's request to release the estimates, did it require that they be amended before being released? Was this “feedback” from OMB, or was it passed along by OMB from scientists in other agencies?

In addition, the administration has not disputed the working paper's timeline, which states that NOAA submitted the estimates for release in late April or early May. However, the administration has not publicly confirmed the timeline, either. In a letter to the commission, NOAA did acknowledge a delay in clearing the models for release, which it attributed to the models' complexity, the desire to be current in reflecting changes in the spill and response, and the challenges of clearly and accurately communicating to the public. The question remains: What was the exact timeline, from submission to feedback to public release?

Finally, the administration has stated that OMB's feedback was intended to improve the modeling and that there was nothing improper about this process. In a letter to the commission, NOAA director Jane Lubchenco states, "I believe the end product was consistent with the highest professional standards and best available scientific data." However, the administration has provided only its assertions to evidence this claim. Particularly, the administration has not released the draft that NOAA submitted for OMB approval, which would permit independent analysis of its claim that the draft's models were flawed. Neither has the administration released intermediate drafts or correspondence relating to changes in the document, which would allow the public to judge whether the edits were scientific or political in nature.

These are not idle questions given criticisms of OMB interfering in agencies’ scientific decisions during the previous administration. "If OMB censored NOAA by refusing to let the agency release its worst-case estimate – well, that would be extremely troubling," said Gary Bass, OMB Watch executive director, in a Washington Post article. "It would be reminiscent of the Bush II administration which often put politics above science. We have not seen that pattern during the Obama administration."

Additionally, these are not the first questions raised about the Obama administration's handling of information and access about the BP oil spill. For example, the commission's working paper also examined NOAA's Aug. 4 "oil budget" estimating what happened to the spilled oil and how much remains in the Gulf. The oil budget was criticized by several scientists as well as Reps. Ed Markey (D-MA) and Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) for painting too rosy a picture and for not disclosing its methodology. (As of this writing, the oil budget's methodology still has not been released.) Transparency failures unfortunately have been a recurring theme in the spill response, including a lack of transparency from BP and obstructions to media access to the spill site.

The administration's claims that it did not act improperly may well be truthful. However, the administration has not provided enough information about the process to allow the public to evaluate the claims. Instead, the opacity of agency interactions with OMB leaves little more than a "he said, she said" situation. This creates public uncertainty – and that uncertainty leads to distrust of our government.

Government insiders will argue against any peek into the interagency process, claiming that disclosure could chill dialogue in internal deliberations. However, this claim must be weighed against other criteria, such as the imperative of accountability. In some situations, the case for transparency is clear and striking: this is such a case. Given that President Obama called the BP spill "the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced," the public should demand a greater level of transparency than usual. Accordingly, OMB and NOAA should release all revisions to the long-term, worst-case scenario, as well as relevant communications and a timeline of changes.

When President Obama established the oil spill commission, he said, "[E]ven as we continue to hold BP accountable, we also need to hold Washington accountable…. I want to know what worked and what didn’t work in our response to the disaster[.]" In that spirit, let's open the books and see what really happened between OMB and NOAA.

Image in teaser by U.S. Coast Guard.