Two congressmen on Thursday questioned why the Obama administration made a major announcement about what happened to the oil in the Gulf of Mexico earlier this month without the science to back it up .
Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Ed Markey demanded that NOAA surrender the data and algorithms behind its increasingly controversial estimate, so that independent scientists could assess the credibility of its conclusion that the vast majority of the oil BP spilled in the Gulf is gone,
And California Republican Rep. Darrell Issa accused the White House of releasing the report prematurely for PR purposes. "This is yet another in a long line of examples where the White House's pre-occupation with the public relations of the oil spill has superseded the realities on the ground," the ranking member of the House oversight committee said in a press release.
"It is deeply troubling that White House officials apparently preempted the completion and review of a scientific study on the oil spill by NOAA scientists in order to tout conclusions that many experts believe may be deeply flawed."
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration director Jane Lubchenco, meanwhile, dismissed the growing controversy as "a tempest in a teapot."
"The report and the calculations that went into it were reviewed by independent scientists," Lubchenco said in a conference call to reporters. "And we are pulling together the full background information that would go into a more comprehensive report." The due date for that report: about two months.
Bill Lehr, a senior scientist at NOAA and one of the lead authors of the report, continued to defend its findings in his testimony at Markey's congressional hearing. But Lehr also made clear that the report -- called an "oil budget" -- was put together in a hurry and that its purpose was to inform the emergency response, not the general public.
As a result, it focused on oil that could still potentially be recovered, he said, and it also had not yet been thoroughly documented or reviewed.
On Wednesday, Lehr held a conference call with congressional investigators. Contradictory reports have emerged about what exactly he said.
According to two congressional sources who were on the call, Lehr said the decision to release the oil budget to the media was made by the White House -- not by administration scientists. Lehr reportedly also said that scientists had concerns about it being released.
But two other congressional sources who were on the call, and who also talked to the Huffington Post, said they did not recall Lehr making any such statements.
At Thursday's hearing, Lehr didn't specifically address who decided to make the report public. He refused to answer reporters' questions as he left the hearing room. And NOAA public affairs officials declined to make him available afterwards.
But Shannon Gilson, a spokeswoman for the Commerce Department, released the following statement on behalf on NOAA, which is part of Commerce: "Dr. Lubchenco and the Incident Command decided to release the estimate to the American people given the heightened interest in the fate of the oil. Any speculation that Bill Lehr suggested otherwise on a call with Congressional staffers is false."
However it came to pass, the oil budget was leaked on August 3 to New York Times reporter Justin Gillis, whose credulous account led to a deluge of similarly unquestioning media coverage the following day.
Coming along with the capping of the well, it was a public relations coup for a White House eager to get the oil spill story off the front pages, reassert control over a narrative that had gotten away from them, and calm fears.
The White House also spun the report in a particularly favorable way. Deciding whether most of the oil is gone or not depends primarily on one's views about oil that's dissolved or been dispersed. When the report came out, administration officials encouraged the view that the approximately 50 percent of oil estimated to be dissolved or dispersed no longer posed a risk -- was, essentially, gone. By contrast, some independent scientists have been saying for months that subsurface oil is likely causing massive environmental damage, even if it can't easily be seen.
Since the oil budget went public, several independent scientists have called for the release of its supporting data. Others have reached their own, conflicting conclusions.
One group organized by the Georgia Sea Grant this week calculated that 70 to 79 percent of the oil remains underwater, and concluded that "the media interpretation of the report's findings has been largely inaccurate and misleading."
And in a major, peer-reviewed article in Science magazine, scientists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Thursday described their discovery in June of a plume of hydrocarbons that is at least 22 miles long and more than 3,000 feet below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico. That's about the size of Manhattan.
Furthermore, the scientists found that contrary to the NOAA report, the oil was not "biodegrading quickly"-- at least not at that depth.
What seems increasingly clear is that the government's oil budget did not come close to meeting the kinds of scientific standards that Lubchenco herself had previously cited as the reason she for so long declined to officially acknowledge the existence of massive amounts of subsurface oil.
Lehr's statement that the oil budget was initially only intended for responders explains a lot. For instance, its lack of emphasis on subsurface oil is consistent with the fact that, as Lehr said, "it's not available for response, which was the purpose of the oil budget numbers." That's also why the report didn't address how much poisonous methane gas was released by the well, he said.
But that doesn't mean all that oil and gas doesn't continue to do untold damage to the ecosystem. Under questioning by Markey, Lehr acknowledged that most of the oil is still in the Gulf -- even "the stuff that evaporated into the atmosphere is still in the environment," he said.
So why, then, was the report misleadingly pitched to the media and the public as the authoritative answer to the question: where did the oil go? And who exactly made that call? Whose interests did that serve?
Why did White House environmental advisor Carol Browner go on the morning shows and announce: "More than three-quarters of the oil is gone. The vast majority of the oil is gone"? Why did she and Lubchenco tell reporters in the White House briefing room about their "high degree of confidence" and "so much certainty"? Why did they insist that the study had been peer reviewed, when it hadn't?
And why does NOAA still refuse to provide independent scientists and the public with any additional information about how they arrived at those numbers in the first place?
Those questions remain.
Sam Stein contributed to this report.