By DINA CAPPIELLO, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) - The Interior Department's inspector general says the White House edited a drilling safety report in a way that made it falsely appear that scientists and experts supported the administration's six-month ban on new drilling.
The inspector general says the editing changes resulted "in the implication that the moratorium recommendation had been peer reviewed." But it hadn't been. The scientists were only asked to review new safety measures for offshore drilling.
The investigation is the latest in a string of incidents where the Obama administration has been accused of overstating the science behind official reports and political decisions made after the massive Gulf oil spill. In the wake of the April 20 disaster, the administration struggled to portray that it - not BP - was in charge of responding to the blowout, which killed 11 and spewed millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf.
Last month, staff for the presidential oil spill commission said that the White House's budget office delayed publication of a report by federal scientists that forecast how much oil could potentially reach the Gulf's shores. Federal scientists initially used a volume of oil that did not account for the administration's various cleanup efforts. A smaller volume was ultimately presented.
The same report said that President Barack Obama's energy adviser, Carol Browner, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration head Jane Lubchenco contributed to the public's perception that a government report on where the oil had gone was more exact than it was by emphasizing peer review. Browner, the commission's staff said, also mischaracterized the analysis on national TV, saying it showed most of the oil was "gone." The report said it could still be there.
The IG report says Browner's staff could have implied scientists had endorsed the moratorium, by moving up a reference to peer review in the drilling safety report. Steve Black, an adviser for Interior Secretary Ken Salazar who reviewed the final version of the text from the White House at 2 or 3 a.m. the day it was released, said he did not have any issues with the changes.
"There was no intent to mislead the public," said Kendra Barkoff, a spokeswoman for Salazar, who also recommended in the May 27 safety report that a moratorium be placed on deepwater oil and gas exploration. "The decision to impose a temporary moratorium on deepwater drilling was made by the secretary, following consultation with colleagues including the White House."
The Interior Department, after one of the reviewers complained about the inference, promptly issued an apology during a conference call, with a letter and personal meeting in June.
At least eight of the 15 experts asked to review the Interior Department's work expressed concern about the change made by the White House, saying that it differed in important ways from the draft they had signed off on. But the experts also questioned the basis for the drilling ban.
"We believe the report does not justify the moratorium as written and that the moratorium as changed will not contribute measurably to increased safety and will have immediate and long-term economic effects," the scientists wrote in a fax sent to Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, and Louisiana Sens. Mary Landrieu and David Vitter, earlier this year. "The secretary should be free to recommend whatever he thinks is correct, but he should not be free to use our names to justify his political decisions."
A federal judge in New Orleans struck down the Interior Department's first moratorium in June, saying the government didn't justify it. U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman also ruled that the department improperly issued safety rules because it issued them without soliciting public comment.
Jindal, in a statement released Wednesday, said the Obama administration should have listened to the experts who backed specific steps to improve oversight and safety of offshore drilling.
"Instead, the Obama administration issued an arbitrary and capricious moratorium...which has threatened the livelihoods of thousands of Americans," Jindal said.
The inspector general's report, which was originally requested by Vitter and Rep. Steve Scalise in June, said the administration did not violate federal rules because the executive summary did not say the experts approved the recommendations, and the department offered a formal apology and had publicly clarified the nature of the expert review.
The report also says the engineer that levied the concerns accepted Salazar's explanation that the language was a mistake rather than an intentional attempt to use the peer-reviewers' names to justify a political decision.
The conclusion, however, did little to assuage Gulf Coast lawmakers, and will likely fuel Republicans taking over the House next year to push for further inquiries into administration decisions following the oil spill.
Vitter said the Obama administration appears to have "deliberately violated" a law that sets government-wide procedures to ensure the integrity of information put out by federal agencies. "This report reveals exactly what I suspected all along," he said. "I wanted to make sure that the federal government was basing policy decisions that would directly impact so many Louisianians on science - not politics. Unfortunately, this report reveals the contrary."
Louisiana Rep. Bill Cassidy, a Republican, agreed.
"Candidate Obama promised that he would guided by science, not ideology," he said.
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)