- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 6, 2010

WASHINGTON (AP) — The White House blocked efforts by federal scientists to tell the public just how bad the Gulf oil spill could have been, according to a panel appointed by President Obama to investigate the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.

In documents released Wednesday, the national oil spill commission’s staff reveals that in late April or early May the White House budget office denied a request from the Nationalal Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to make public the worst-case discharge from the blown-out well. The Unified Command — the government team in charge of the spill response — also was discussing the possibility of making the numbers public, the report says, citing interviews with government officials.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

But Jerry Miller, head of the White House science office’s ocean subcommittee, told the Associated Press in an interview at a St. Petersburg, Fla., conference on the oil flow that he didn’t think the budget office censored NOAA.

“I would very much doubt that anyone would put restrictions on NOAA’s ability to articulate factual information,” Mr. Miller said.

The April 20 blowout and explosion in the Gulf of Mexico killed 11 workers, spewed 206 million gallons of oil from the damaged oil well and sunk the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig.

BP’s drilling permit for the Macondo well originally estimated the worst scenario to be a leak of 6.8 million gallons per day. In late April, the Coast Guard and NOAA received an updated estimate of 2.7 million to 4.6 million gallons per day.

While those figures were used as the basis for the government’s response to the spill — they appeared on an internal Coast Guard situation report and on a dry-erase board in NOAA’s Seattle war room — the public was never told.

In the meantime, government officials were telling the public that the well was releasing 210,000 gallons per day — a figure that later would be adjusted to be much closer to the worst-case estimates.

“Despite the fact that the Unified Command had this information, relied on it for operations, and publicly states that it was operating under a worst-case scenario, the government never disclosed what its … scenario was,” the report says.

University of South Florida oceanographer David Hollander, who was also at the St. Petersburg meeting of 150 scientists studying the oil flow on Wednesday, said he was surprised to find that the White House budget office gagged NOAA. He said public disclosure would have helped scientists figure out what was going on.

“It would have been much better to know from a scientific point of view the reality,” he said in an interview with the Associated Press.

Associated Press science writer Seth Borenstein contributed from St. Petersburg, Fla.