Grijalva Demands Info on Disappearing Oil Reports


About that disappearing oil: Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) sent scathing letters to the heads of three agencies closely involved in the response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill this week. The congressman accuses the federal government’s spill responders of using “questionable scientific data” and potentially misleading Americans about the amount of oil still in the gulf.

As we’ve reported here plenty of times now, there are many outstanding questions about the government’s official estimates on the spill: Why were the initial estimates of the spill size so far off base? Why won’t the feds release data to back-up their claims? Why wasn’t the spill budget peer-reviewed, as officials indicated? Grijalva, chair of the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands, raises all these questions and more in letters sent this week to Coast Guard Rear Admiral James Watson, US Geological Survey Director Marcia McNutt, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrator Jane Lubchenco.

The letters demand all staff emails from each agency about the release, analysis, preparation, and dissemination of the oil budget report and flow rate estimates; the supporting scientific documentation for the reports and any early drafts; records of any communication with outside experts, and records of communication with news outlets on the reports. Clearly, Grijalva wants to know where all those claims about disappearing oil actually came from.

In his letters, he raised questions about the release of a government report on August 4 that indicated that the vast majority of the oil in the Gulf was gone or otherwise non-consequential. He also questioned the assertion that the report had been reviewed by independent scientists, which it apparently was not:

This gave the clear impression that the data to support the findings, as well as the findings themselves, had been subjected to a scientifically rigorous peer review process. The initial public reaction was relief that such a thorough review had found reduced risks to the Gulf of Mexico and its ecosystems and economic resources.

His letter to McNutt states that USGS has “a troubling history of premature assurances that the Horizon disaster was small and easily containable.” He also questions her bizarre reference to “unknown unknowns” in their analysis of the size of the spill.

The letters also highlight a television report from New Orleans about independent scientists claiming that government actors had tried to silence their findings. Here’s an excerpt from the letter to Lubchenco:

Taken together, this attitude toward independent analysis and the widely varying spill estimates do not paint an acceptable picture. The Gulf economy was shattered by the Deepwater Horizon disaster, and the people of the Gulf states and the entire nation have rightly demanded an explanation not only of how the spill occurred, but of the extent of the damage and the prospects for recovery. I am concerned that NOAA and its partner agencies have fallen short in this regard.

I’ll be interested to see what the agencies provide to Grijalva, considering the trouble outside groups have had prying information from their grasp.

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  • Kate Sheppard was a staff reporter in Mother Jones' Washington bureau from 2009 to 2013. She is now a senior reporter and the energy and environment editor at The Huffington Post. She can be reached by email at kate (dot) sheppard (at) huffingtonpost (dot) com and you can follow her on Twitter @kate_sheppard.