WASHINGTON — An environmental whistleblower group charges in a lawsuit that the Obama administration is withholding documents that would reveal why it issued an estimate on the gravity of the Gulf of Mexico oil well blowout that later was proved to be far too low.
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility sued Thursday in federal court, claiming that federal officials are withholding hundreds of pages of reports and communications between scientists on the Flow Rate Technical Group, who were tasked with making the estimates, and Marcia McNutt, the head of the U.S. Geological Survey, who chaired the technical group and released a summary of its findings.
The controversy over the oil flow estimates is part of a broader question about whether political appointees at the top of the Obama administration have manipulated and publicized incorrect or incomplete scientific information in an attempt to tamp down anxiety and anger over the world's worst oil accident.
The failure to assess the damage from BP's spill also is seen as hampering the government's continued efforts to clean up the Gulf.
"This lawsuit will produce Exhibit A for the case that science is still being manipulated under the current administration," Jeff Ruch, the executive director of the environmental organization, said in a statement.
"Our concern is that the administration took, and is still taking, steps to falsely minimize public perception about the extent and severity of the BP spill, a concern that the administration could start to dispel by releasing these documents," Ruch said.
Ruch said that some of the missing information was thought to show that the USGS knew in May, when it released an estimate of 12,000 to 19,000 barrels a day, that there was a completed estimate that was much higher.
In August, after the well had been capped, the government produced a new estimate as much as five times higher, based on better information from pressure readings and other analysis. It said that the oil flowed at a rate of 62,000 barrels of oil per day at first and later slowed to 53,000 barrels a day, with a margin of error of plus or minus 10 percent. Based on that finding, the official estimate is that 4.1 million barrels of oil poured into the Gulf from April to July.
Questions also have been raised about the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's report in August that said that 74 percent of the oil had been captured, dispersed, skimmed or burned, or had evaporated or dissolved. NOAA hasn't released scientific findings to back up that assessment.
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility's lawsuit doesn't target NOAA, however. The nonprofit environmental protection group acts on behalf of concerned government insiders.
The advocacy group sought the documents on estimates of the oil flow under the Freedom of Information Act. The USGS posted some of the requested materials on its website, but the group said in its lawsuit that it had sought hundreds more that the agency didn't release.
Those include communications between McNutt and her staff and members of the flow-rate technical team, including e-mails and minutes of conferences, and all reports by the team that contain estimates of the maximum oil leak rate.
The technical group was supposed to look at the worst-case scenario, and it isn't known whether it gave a higher estimate to the government's oil-spill response center, Ruch said.
USGS spokeswoman Anne-Betty Wade referred questions to the Department of Interior, whose spokeswoman, Kendra Barkoff, said she couldn't comment on pending litigation.
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility claims that McNutt originally didn't reveal that the May figures were a minimum estimate. The agency updated the news release in June.
Early on, after the explosion and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon rig in April, officials put the flow at 1,000 barrels a day. They raised that to 5,000 barrels based on overhead visual estimates and stuck to that figure for weeks, even after it became apparent that much of the oil was remaining below the surface and out of sight.
The oil spill data isn't the only issue that's worrying the group.
In March 2009, not long after he was sworn in, Obama issued an executive memorandum that said his administration would adopt policies to protect scientific integrity. He directed the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to develop those policies by July 9, 2009.
The policies still haven't been issued.
"We pointed out the reason the Bush administration could manipulate science was because there were no rules against it, and there still aren't," Ruch said.