- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Gulf State lawmakers are accusing the Obama administration of putting politics above science after a government watchdog said Interior Department officials misled the public by altering a report to suggest that a group of outside scientists supported a blanket ban on deepwater drilling.

The administration maintains that the flap is the result of rushed editing and nothing more. However, members of Congress from the Gulf region, already incensed over what they described as a heavy-handed, one-size-fits-all reaction to the BP oil spill, are crying foul.

“This was not an accident at all. It was a deliberate attempt to use the prestige of the scientists to support their political decision,” said Rep. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, one of several Republicans who this summer requested an investigation into the moratorium by the Interior Department’s inspector general.

Mr. Cassidy, who said the IG’s conclusions will come as “bitter news” to about 12,000 workers who lost their jobs because of the moratorium, noted that the administration ignored later arguments by five of the panel’s seven scientists in favor of targeted inspections over a blanket ban - something he said violated Mr. Obama’s vow to let science, and not politics, guide his policies.

The IG investigation revealed that an aide to White House energy adviser Carol M. Browner who was making last-minute edits to the Interior report inserted language into the executive summary saying an independent seven-member panel had signed off on the recommendations in the document.

That implied that the experts had approved of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s proposal to ban deep-water drilling when they hadn’t even been consulted on the matter. Interior merely had asked them to peer-review a slate of drilling-safety recommendations.

“The White House edit of the original DOI draft executive summary led to the implication that the moratorium recommendation had been peer-reviewed by the experts,” concludes the IG report, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Times.

This is not the first time the Obama administration, particularly Mrs. Browner’s office, has come under fire for scientific statements related to the oil spill.

Last month, staff for the presidential oil spill commission said Mrs. Browner had mischaracterized a government analysis about the remains of the spill, saying most of the oil was “gone,” when the report said it could still be there.

The panel also criticized Mrs. Browner and Jane Lubchenco, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, for implying in public venues that peer review made these estimates more precise than they really were.

In October, Mr. Salazar announced an end to the moratorium more than a month before its planned expiration, saying stiffer new regulations on oil-spill prevention and containment had made deep-water drilling significantly safer than it was in April, when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded off the coast of Louisiana and killed 11 people, setting off the worst environmental disaster in the nation’s history.

In the immediate aftermath of the spill, Mr. Obama ordered Mr. Salazar to conduct a 30-day review of current industry practices and get back to him with recommendations for improving safety. It’s that report — the final version of which included Mr. Salazar’s call for a blanket six-month moratorium — that government officials improperly manipulated, according to the IG.

After consulting with seven independent experts on the safety recommendations, Interior officials sent the White House an initial draft of the report’s executive summary, which discussed the moratorium on Page 1 and the peer-reviewed safety proposals on Page 2.

The aide to Mrs. Browner responded in the early hours of May 27 with several edits, including a change that placed a paragraph saying the experts had reviewed the report’s recommendations directly under a paragraph outlining Mr. Salazar’s call for an immediate halt to deep-water drilling.

An Interior Department spokeswoman described the issue as a “misunderstanding” that Mr. Salazar later cleared up through individual letters and a conference call with the experts, several of whom complained publicly after the 30-day report was released.

“There was no intent to mislead the public,” spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff said. “The decision to impose a temporary moratorium on deep-water drilling was made by the secretary following consultation with colleagues including the White House. As the [IG] report makes clear, the misunderstanding with the reviewers was resolved with the June third letter and a subsequent conference call with those experts.”

The White House likewise defended the administration’s handling of the situation.

“The Inspector General found no intentional misrepresentation of [the experts’] views. The IG further found that to the extent that there was any misunderstanding of their position, Interior acted quickly to correct it,” spokesman Bill Burton said. “The decision to implement a six-month moratorium on deep-water drilling in the Gulf of Mexico was correctly based on the need for adequate spill response, well containment and safety measures, and we stand behind that decision.”

Three of the seven experts, all of whom were recommended to Interior by the National Academy of Engineering, told the IG that they accepted Mr. Salazar’s explanation that misrepresentation was caused by an editing mistake and was not intentional.

At the same time, at least one of the engineers told the government watchdog that the agency should not have called for a blanket moratorium without consulting the experts.

Indeed, five of the experts complained in a letter earlier this summer to Gulf lawmakers that a blanket moratorium “will not measurably reduce risk further, and it will have a lasting impact on the nation’s economy which may be greater than that of the oil spill.” The engineers urged Mr. Salazar “to overcome emotion with logic.”

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Mr. Obama repeatedly excoriated President George W. Bush for placing ideology above science, most especially in the context of global climate debate and issues surrounding embryonic stem-cell research.

Last year, in announcing a new science policy, the president again blasted Mr. Bush for forcing “a false choice between sound science and moral values” and vowed to let scientists do their work unfettered by a political agenda.

Asked this summer why the Obama administration didn’t follow the advice of the engineers, Mrs. Browner defended the moratorium as a “policy decision.”

“What the experts were providing was their expert advice but not the policy decisions that were obviously under the purview of the secretary of the interior,” she told reporters at a June press briefing.

But the scientists maintained, in a letter sent earlier this year to Louisiana’s governor and two U.S. senators, that this doesn’t affect the scientific-prestige matter from their perspective.

“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,” they wrote.

The moratorium was politically thorny from day one as environmental activists panned it as too weak while states along the Gulf decried it as an economy-killer. Now, even as Mr. Salazar lifted the ban, the industry has warned of a “de facto moratorium” created by uncertainty surrounding the new, stricter drilling rules.

Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, Louisiana Democrat, has refused to drop her legislative hold of Mr. Obama’s budget-director nominee, saying last month she needs more time “to evaluate if the lifting of the moratorium is actually putting people back to work.”

Details of the IG report were first reported by Politico.