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Congressman Accuses White House Of Putting Spin Above Science

First Posted: 01/25/11 05:18 PM ET Updated: 05/25/11 07:25 PM ET

Grijalva White House Oil Spill

Updated with White House response. See below.

A Democratic congressman on Tuesday released heavily-redacted documents suggesting that White House officials overruled scientific concerns as they rushed to release a controversial report last summer on what happened to the oil that had spilled from a BP rig in the Gulf of Mexico.

The report's basic findings were largely vindicated in November, when an extensively peer-reviewed version reached more or less the same conclusions.

Nevertheless, some concerns persist about the way the initial report was formulated and characterized by the White House.

For instance, newly-released emails show that top officials at the Environmental Protection Agency "were not comfortable with some of the distinctions and omissions" in the report, but were overruled by an administration official who said his decision was "based on how NOAA [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] is developing a communication product with the WH [White House]."

The central dispute was over the report's estimate of how much oil had been dispersed chemically rather than naturally. The EPA said the estimate was "very rough and should not be considered accurate," but the official said it was staying in the report because "the goal is to show chemical dispersion as part of the Federal response to the spill."

The White House on Tuesday night chalked it all up to "healthy scientific debate." (See below.)

Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) wrote in a letter to President Barack Obama: "On several occasions, it appears the White House overruled government experts' advice in favor of report language that oversimplified scientific issues for public consumption."

Grijalva said the rejection of EPA's concerns in particular "gives the distinct impression that the White House was more concerned about public image than scientific accuracy in describing the effectiveness of its cleanup efforts."

The Arizona congressman also strenuously objected to the heavily blacked-out emails that he received in response to his request as a member of the House Natural Resources Committee. "These redactions are unacceptable and overreaching," he wrote. "I believe NOAA's redactions violate the spirit and principle of the accountability you promised."

The Project on Government Oversight also sent Obama a letter on Tuesday. "Science is not public relations, where complicated issues can be simplified easily," the POGO letter said. "We are concerned that White House officials may have removed the uncertainty that typically comes with scientific measurements and settled on a more definitive number to make the public feel more comfortable."

Among the White House offices vetting the report were the Office of Management and Budget and the office of Obama's top energy and environmental adviser, Carol Browner, who by coincidence announced Monday that she is stepping down.

UPDATE: White House spokesman Clark Stevens responded by email:

The BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill was an unprecedented event, and to confront this challenge the administration launched the largest response to an oil spill in U.S. history. The federal response required extensive coordination and involved a broad range of scientists and experts from across, as well as outside, the federal government. These emails reflect close and effective coordination and healthy scientific debate among numerous federal agencies and the White House. The data behind the oil budget has since undergone extensive, independent, peer-review, which is largely consistent with the information released in August.

The report's release in early August won the Obama administration the headlines it sought, as most journalists dutifully reported that most of the oil was gone. By the time independent scientists and skeptical congressmen publicly raised doubts about the report and the way it had been characterized, the public's perception had already been set.

Browner set the tone of the coverage Aug. 4 by telling TV audiences something beyond even what the report was claiming: that "[m]ore than three-quarters of the oil is gone. The vast majority of the oil is gone." The White House has since retracted that statement.

NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco emailed the White House soon afterward to express her concerns, as described in an October report by the federal oil spill commission. "It's not accurate to say that 75% of the oil is gone. 50% of it is gone -- either evaporated or burned, skimmed or recovered from the wellhead," Lubchenco wrote.

But even the 50-percent figure was debatable, depending on whether one considers dissolved or dispersed oil actually "gone." And at a White House press briefing later that day, standing alongside Browner, Lubchenco didn't correct Browner's earlier misstatement. Instead, she mischaracterized the report as having been reviewed by independent scientists, which it had not been. Lubchenco has retracted that comment, as well.

Obama administration officials routinely minimized the extent of the spill as they sought to make the case that the situation was under control. Most concretely, the administration put forth a whole series of laughable estimates of the amount of oil spewing out of BP's broken pipe.

Only once the wellhead was capped did the government come out with an estimate of 4.9 million barrels spilled -- making the BP disaster the worst accidental offshore oil spill in history.

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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.

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