US & Canada

Gulf oil spill commission criticises White House

Fire boats battle a fire at the off shore oil rig Deepwater Horizon April 22, 2010
Image caption The report says the government's response "seemed to lag" in the early stages of the disaster

A commission investigating the response to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has strongly criticised the White House in a number of areas.

The Obama administration blocked government scientists' efforts to inform the public of worst case scenarios, a draft report said.

Officials were said to have been too optimistic about handling the disaster, one of the worst in US history.

The White House disputes this, saying officials "were clear with the public".

But the BBC's Steve Kingstone, in Washington, says the accusations will embarrass the White House, coming as they do from a commission appointed by President Barack Obama.

'Controlling information'

The report by the National Oil Spill Commission says the White House was directly involved in controlling information from the spill that began after an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig on 20 April.

The report says that during the crucial first 10 days of the oil spill the government's response "seemed to lag" - and that coastguard officials were "overly-optimistic" in believing BP could handle the incident.

Government scientists are accused of first underestimating the amount of oil pouring into the Gulf and then overestimating the quantity which had evaporated or otherwise been removed from the sea.

The report says the president's adviser on energy policy, Carol Browner, stated wrongly on American television that three-quarters of the oil had "gone", and that the White House blocked a request by officials to make public a worst case scenario for the scale of the leak.

Worst-case scenario

The panel, which cited interviews with government officials, said in late April or early May, the White House budget office denied a request from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to make public its worst-case estimate of how much oil could leak from the Macondo well.

But the White House said in a statement Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Thad Allen, the retired Coast Guard admiral in charge of the response, told the public the worst-case scenario could be more than 4.2 million gallons per day.

BP's drilling permit for the well said 6.8 million gallons could pour from the well during the worst-case scenario.

NOAA and the Coast Guard later received an updated worst-case scenario just after the spill began, putting the estimate at 2.7 million to 4.6 million gallons per day.

The National Oil Spill Commission report says those numbers, which were used as the basis for the administration's spill response, were never made public - though they appeared on an internal Coast Guard situation report.

The report also says the federal government used too much boom to stop the oil from spreading - especially in the US state of Louisiana, where directions went out to "keep the parishes happy".

The explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig killed 11 workers, polluted hundreds of kilometres of shoreline and disrupted tourism and local fishing industries before the leaking well was capped on 15 July.

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