Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) on Thursday demanded that the Obama administration surrender the data and algorithms behind its increasingly controversial estimate that most of the oil spilled in the Gulf no longer presents a risk of harm.
At an unusual recess hearing of his Energy and Environment Subcommittee, Markey said the report, issued with great fanfare by the administration earlier this month but now being challenged by independent scientists, may be lulling emergency responders and the public into complacency.
"People want to believe that everything is OK and I think this report and the way it is being discussed is giving many people a false sense of confidence regarding the state of the Gulf," he said.
Gulf residents in particular, Markey said, "don't want this to be downplayed or low-balled, which is to some extent what has happened since that was released."
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration senior scientist Bill Lehr told Markey the report was compiled as part of the emergency response, and that his agency is only now conducting a scientific peer review to confirm the findings.
Markey said NOAA "shouldn't have released" the report if it wasn't ready to make its data and models public. "First you gave the answer, and now you are going to be showing your work. ... and that's the opposite of the way in which a study of that magnitude would be released," he said.
He formally requested supporting documents that would allow independent scientists to assess their conclusion: "Will you release that now?"
But Lehr said such documents are in the process of being compiled and won't be released for at least two months.
Markey was not satisfied. "That's not timely enough," he said. "There is too long of a gap that is going to elapse under the process that you have adopted. The real issue here is that the public has a right to know right now what is going on in the Gulf of Mexico, and your report should be analyzed by others right now."
Markey said "there was an optimistic spin in some quarters that was placed upon that report; and since that is happening in real time, then an independent evaluation of that report must happen in real time," he said.
"That's why it's important for you to surrender this information now to independent scientists," he said.
"The longer the time that elapses, the lower the political pressure and the public attention will be there to make sure the resources are brought to the problem," he said. "If you're wrong, the consequences are great."
Lehr acknowledged that there is a demand for the supporting documents. "Some of our academic friends have asked for this," he said. "I would suggest that patience in this case is a virtue," he said. By contrast, he said, "you do not tell Thad Allen [the national incident commander] to wait three months for peer review."
Administration officials said earlier this month that three quarters of the oil has either been dispersed, dissolved, burned off, skimmed up, evaporated or directly recaptured. President Obama himself said: "A report out today by our scientists shows that the vast majority of the spilled oil has been dispersed or removed from the water."
But Markey also challenged the way the results were presented, and got Lehr to acknowledge that looking at the data another way, the takeaway is not that most of the oil no longer poses a danger -- but that the overwhelming majority remains in the environment.
Between the skimming and the burning, Markey said, only 10 percent of the 4.1 million barrels spilled have been actually removed from the ocean, "leaving 90 percent unaccounted for."
Markey said that after the Exxon Valdez disaster, experts determined that with the then-current levels of technology, 10 to 15 percent of an oil spill should be recoverable.
"It seems to me that BP's oil recovery effort comes in at the low level of what was achievable 21 years ago," Markey said. BP did a "poor job of cleaning up the Gulf."