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Obama Administration Defends Oil Spill Response After Critical Report

October 7, 2010 at 5:28 PM EDT
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A presidential commission has offered some harsh words of criticism of the White House response to the BP oil spill. Ray Suarez talks to David Fahrenthold of the Washington Post for details.
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RAY SUAREZ: Now: an update on the Gulf oil spill. A commission asked by the president to investigate the disaster has offered some harsh criticism of the White House response. The National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill released its preliminary findings yesterday.

It found the federal government, “By initially underestimating the amount of the oil flow, 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.”

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs responded to the charges today.

WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY ROBERT GIBBS: I think it is important to understand that our response attacked the oil spill in an unprecedented way. It was the largest environmental disaster that we have ever faced. And we attacked it with the largest federal response.

We — we did all that was humanly possible in the most challenging of environments.

RAY SUAREZ: For more, we turn to David Fahrenthold, who is covering the story for The Washington Post. He joins us from their newsroom. And, David, in addition to the criticism of the Obama administration’s counting of the barrels of oil, what were the main findings in this preliminary report?

DAVID FAHRENTHOLD, The Washington Post: Basically, they were — it could be embarrassing for an administration that has really prided itself on two things, on scientific rigor and also on transparency in government.

They show that, at times, the government stood by a figure for how large the oil spill was, in particular 5,000 barrels a day. That was its estimate — estimate for most of May. It stood by that figure at a time when other independent scientists seemed to be questioning it and saying, look, the number is actually much larger than 5,000 barrels a day, and when the origin of that number actually was not that strong.

So, the government didn’t really seem curious about its own information, about its own data. And the report described it as having taken a casual approach to the data. So, that’s one thing.

And on the other side of this transparency issue, there was a question of when the government knew things about how bad the spill was, was it honest with people? And that shows up at the beginning, when — very beginning of the spill, actually, right after — the day after the rig sank.

The — Rear Admiral Mary Landry, one of the Coast Guard officials leading the response, was asked, well, what have you seen evidence about — have you seen evidence of a leak? And she said, we have examined the riser pipe, which is a pipe that goes from the bottom of the ocean up to the rig. We have examined that pipe and found that it’s not leaking.

In fact, the report says they had not actually examined that pipe, and which turned out later, upon examination, to be leaking. So, if you look at this, if you look at those two things, you see examples of where they sort out set out this high standard for themselves in the way they would handle the spill, and didn’t seem they were up to it most of the time, or some of the time at least.

RAY SUAREZ: As you’ve mentioned, the report makes clear the commission’s belief that the government misstated all during the early parts of this crisis the amount of oil that was spilling into the Gulf.

But do they maintain that the government knew these figures were false?

DAVID FAHRENTHOLD: Well, I would make one clarification. This is not something that the commission itself has voted on. This is the staff of the commission. The Obama administration made that point very clear today. They think this is different than the commission having sort of decided on this.

And the question of how much they knew, it was a question both of not saying — there was a question in which the responders seemed to be using higher numbers internally to guide their response. They were talking about numbers as high as 60,000 barrels a day in a vague sense behind the scenes and were structuring their response based on that.

But, at the same time, they were telling the public, look, it’s only 5,000 barrels a day. The staff report doesn’t say that the response to the spill was hampered in any way. It says that there’s no evidence that they have actually — they actually responded at a lower level than they should have.

But its characterization is that the lack of forthrightness, the sort of troubles with numbers may have hurt public confidence in the government, which in itself is obviously damaging.

RAY SUAREZ: What more has the Obama administration had to say in its own defense about its handling of this problem?

DAVID FAHRENTHOLD: Well, they have said two things. One would be that — something I just alluded to, that their response was rigorous and they responded sort of at the full capacity they could have. It may mean that they just — they were throwing everything they had at this spill, so it couldn’t have really been a bigger response.

So the number in that case was sort of academic. That’s one response. The second response has been — there’s a particular part of the report that says, at one point, NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the scientists who were studying this spill, had been inclined to put out a larger number for the size of the spill and be 60,000 barrels a day or something on that level, which was orders of magnitude larger than the current announced spill size, and that the Office of Management and Budget, an arm of the White House, had basically squelched that.

The White House has responded by saying that they weren’t trying to keep scary information from the public; their concerns were about a different area of the same report, and the report wasn’t really meant as a warning about the size of the spill; it had another purpose.

RAY SUAREZ: Also getting attention on the part of the commission — and they’re taking testimony on it even today — was BP’s role in the maintenance, the oversight of safety equipment and so on.

What’s coming out about what they knew about how the thing was built?

DAVID FAHRENTHOLD: Well, that’s something that’s not addressed as directly in this report.

There’s been some reports coming out of this. There’s a very interesting set of hearings going on down in Louisiana this week that examine what went on in — on the rig at the time of — just at the moments around the initial explosion.

And it seems like there were some alarm bells that could have been rung earlier and some safety devices that could have been put in place that weren’t.

So, and the one sort of element of this that shows up in the staff reports we wrote about was that just sort of a general attitude on the part of the administration that it describes, sort of in the first days of the spill, that people had this attitude that, well, this will be over soon, BP will get this fixed, not necessarily that they failed to do any particular thing, but that are — they were not treating it as a disaster of the size that it would eventually become.

RAY SUAREZ: What’s going to be the product? What’s the final outcome when this investigation is done and the commission releases a set of conclusions?

DAVID FAHRENTHOLD: Its — the commission’s role here is to recommend changes in the way that we respond to oil spills and the way that the government regulates offshore drilling.

There’s going to be sort of a set of guidelines that it recommends to the Obama administration for changing — both keeping oil rigs safe and planning for the next disaster. I imagine you will see a lot of the things we have described today show up as recommendations of sort of better — especially the idea that there wasn’t really a known way or an easily used way of estimating the size of the spill, that turns out to be pretty darn important in something like this.

So, I think you will see maybe an institutionalization of that capacity to estimate the size of the flow and the size of the overall spill, something that it took the government many weeks to sort of ramp up in this case. I think you will see them recommend that be something they roll out a lot faster.

RAY SUAREZ: David Fahrenthold of The Washington Post, thanks for joining us.

DAVID FAHRENTHOLD: Thank you.