E&E: Scientist is accused of lowballing size of Gulf spill

Emily Yehle, E&E reporter
Published: Monday, January 23, 2012

A scientist from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration falsified findings to lowball the amount of oil
that leaked in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion, according to
a scientific integrity complaint filed today.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility is already
pursuing a lawsuit against the Department of the Interior over a
Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for the memos and
emails behind the official scientific assessments of the size of
the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Today’s complaint stems from the
documents thus far received and is the first the group has filed
under NOAA’s new scientific integrity policy.

The complaint alleges that NOAA senior scientist William Lehr
intentionally misrepresented the findings of the one of the teams
under the Flow Rate Technical Group, a panel of experts convened
by the White House to estimate the flow of oil in the disaster.
Lehr headed the Plume Analysis Team.

NOAA’s scientific integrity policy was finalized in December,
meaning Lehr’s actions preceded the policy. How that will affect
the complaint is unclear.

Lehr wrote in a final report a few weeks after the spill that
“most of the experts” concluded that the best estimate was
between 25,000 and 30,000 barrels per day. That estimate turned
out to be only half of the actual leakage, and experts have said
that the original low estimate hampered the cleanup.

PEER asserts that the team was actually split on that estimate
from the beginning. According to the group’s complaint, only
three of 13 team members made such an estimate, using a technique
called Particle Image Velocimetry (PIV), and they concluded that
it was inappropriate.

Three others used a different method that estimated a leak rate
to be between 50,000 to 60,000 barrels per day, while one team
member used a third method, and the rest didn’t submit estimates
at all, according to PEER.

The group cites an email to the plume team from Marcia McNutt,
director of the U.S. Geological Survey, who led the Flow Rate
Technical Group. In it, she appears to respond to some concerns
about oil plume estimates released to the press. She refers to
pressure from White House officials on how to frame the results,
including one communications person who suggested she say that
the flow was 12,000 to 19,000 barrels per day but could be as
much as 25,000.

“I cannot tell you what a nightmare the past two days have been
dealing with the communications people at the White House, DOI,
and the [National Incident Commander] who seem incapable of
understanding the concept of a lower bound,” she wrote. “The
press release that went out on our results was misleading and was
not reviewed by a scientist for accuracy.”

NOAA spokesman Scott Smullen said the agency had just received
the documents and thus was unable to respond to it. PEER sent out
a press release at about 11 a.m. announcing the complaint.

PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch said the complaint will serve
as a “litmus test as to whether the Obama administration will
apply its scientific integrity rules to its own actions.”

“Hopefully, the investigation of this complaint will force the
immediate release of the full deliberations so that the
scientific record can be set straight,” Ruch said, citing his
group’s continuing lawsuit over emails concerning the plume
estimate.

Special thanks to Richard Charter

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