NOAA Claims Scientists Reviewed Controversial Report; The Scientists Say Otherwise
In responding to the growing furor over the public release of a scientifically dubious and overly rosy federal report about the fate of the oil that BP spilled in the Gulf of Mexico, NOAA director Jane Lubchenco has repeatedly fallen back on one particular line of defense -- that independent scientists had given it their stamp of approval.
Back at the report's unveiling on August 4, Lubchenco spoke of a "peer review of the calculations that went into this by both other federal and non-federal scientists." On Thursday afternoon, she told reporters on a conference call: "The report and the calculations that went into it were reviewed by independent scientists." The scientists, she said, were listed at the end of the report.
But all the scientists on that list contacted by the Huffington Post for comment this week said the exact same thing: That although they provided some input to NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), they in no way reviewed the report, and could not vouch for it.
The skimpy, four-page report dominated an entire news cycle earlier this month, with contented administration officials claiming it meant that three fourths of the oil released from BP's well was essentially gone -- evaporated, dispersed, burned, etc. But independent scientists are increasingly challenging the report's findings and its interpretation -- and they are expressing outrage that the administration released no actual data or algorithms to support its claims.
HuffPost reached seven of the 11 scientists listed on the report. One declined to comment at all, six others had things to say.
In addition to disputing Lubchenco's characterization of their role, several of them actually took issue with the report itself.
In particular, they refuted the notion, as put forth by Lubchenco and other Obama administration officials, that the report was either scientifically precise or an authoritative account of where the oil went.
"What we were trying to do was give the Incident Command something that they could at least start with," said Ed Overton, an emeritus professor of environmental science at Louisiana State University. "But these are estimates. There's a difference between data and estimates."
Overton said NOAA asked him: "How much did I think would evaporate?" He responded with some ideas, but noted: "There's a jillion parameters which are not very amenable to modeling."
He said he didn't know what NOAA did with his input. "I pretty much did my estimates and let that go," he said.
And Overton bridled at the way the report was presented -- with very precise percentages attributed to different categories. For instance, the report declared that 24 percent of the oil had been dispersed.
"I didn't like the way they say 24 percent. We don't know that," Overton said. "They could have said a little bit more than a quarter, a little bit less than a quarter. But not 24 percent; that's impossible."
Michel Boufadel is on the list, but told HuffPost he did not review the report or its calculations. And the Temple University environmental engineer also said its specificity was inappropriate.
"When you look at that dispersed amount, and it says 8 percent chemically dispersed and 16 percent naturally dispersed, there's a high degree of uncertainty here," he said. "Naturally dispersed could be 6 or it could be 26."
Ron Goodman, a 30-year veteran of Exxon's Canadian affiliate who now runs his own consulting company, was incorrectly listed on the report with an academic affiliation: "U. of Calgary." He is only an adjunct there. He said he responded to a series of questions from NOAA -- "and that was it."
And once the report came out, he said, "I was concerned that the amount dispersed was very low. I think it was higher by maybe a factor of two or three."
In another example of how people are reading too much into the report, there has been some discussion suggesting that its estimate that 8 percent of the oil was chemically dispersed provides a new data point regarding how well those controversial chemicals worked. Goodman, however, said he believes the government scientists didn't base their conclusion on evidence, but on faith.
"They took the amount of dispersant that was applied, and multiplied it by 20 which is the manufacturer's suggested amount," he said.
Merv Fingas, a former chief researcher for Canada's environmental protection agency, said he thought the report was purely operational in nature. "The purpose of this was for the responders, and to tell them what to do -- as opposed to saying 'golly, the oil's all gone.' That was never the impression. That was very badly misinterpreted."
Fingas said the scientists stressed how broad the ranges should be for the estimates. "On the pie chart, if you say 15 percent, it could maybe be 30, it could maybe be 5."
Told how much certainty administration officials expressed in the estimates -- "we have high degree of confidence in them," is how Lubchenco put it -- Fingas was blunt.
"That's what happens when stuff goes from scientists to politicians," he said. "It was exactly the opposite with the scientists. We had a lot of uncertainty."
Juan Lasheras, an engineering professor at University of California, San Diego, on the list explained: "My involvement with the estimation of the oil spill budget has been minimal. I simply assisted Bill Lehr (NOAA) in a minor way with the estimation of the size of the oil droplets generated by the rising plume. I have not been involved in any of the other calculations or in the discussion and the writing of the report."
Jim Payne, a private environmental consultant on the list, declined to comment beyond saying: "I really don't know that much about how that was calculated."
Also worth noting: Four of the "independent scientists" listed on the report work for the oil industry, have until recently, and/or work for consulting companies that do business with the oil industry.
What happened here? Why did ballpark estimates clearly created to guide emergency responders suddenly get cast as a conclusive scientific facts? (See my story from a few hours ago, Questions Mount About White House's Overly Rosy Report On Oil Spill.)
Why did administration officials mislead the public about those findings -- and then claim that independent scientists had reviewed them, when the evidence suggests that they did not?
NOAA public affairs officials did not respond to requests for comment before my deadline.
Ian R. MacDonald, an oceanographer at Florida State University who was not one of the scientists on NOAA's list, sees this latest incident as part of an ongoing problem.
"I've worked with NOAA essentially all my career and I have many good friends there, and people I respect in the agency, scientists who are really solid," MacDonald said.
"Throughout this process, it's been troubling to me to see the efforts of people like that passed through a filter where the objective seems to be much more political and public relations than making comments to inform the public.
"The consistent theme," MacDonald said, "seems to be to minimize the impact of the oil -- and to act as a bottleneck for information."
Dan Froomkin is senior Washington correspondent for the Huffington Post. You can send him an e-mail, bookmark his page; subscribe to RSS feed, follow him on Twitter, friend him on Facebook, and/or become a fan and get e-mail alerts when he writes.