Commission Excoriates Government's Oil Spill Response

Underestimation of spill greatly hampered clean up

This page was published 13 years ago. Find the latest on Earthjustice’s work.

  AP reports that Florida State University professor Ian MacDonald "is gratified" by today’s oil spill commission report. He has been at odds with government estimates of oil spilled and had this to say to AP:

From the beginning, there was "a contradiction between discoveries and concerns by academic scientists and statements by NOAA," MacDonald said in an interview with the AP at the oil spill conference.

And he said it is still going on. MacDonald and Georgia Tech scientist Joseph Montoya said NOAA is at it again with statements saying there is no oil in ocean floor sediments. A University of Georgia science cruise, which Montoya was on, found ample evidence of oil on the Gulf floor.>

Public confidence was among the victims of the BP oil spill because the government underestimated how much oil actually was spilling into the Gulf of Mexico, and then underestimated how much oil remained after the well was plugged, according to reports from President Obama’s oil spill commission.

Official over-optimism may also have hampered efforts to shut down the well and clean up oil from it, the reports said. The spill started April 20 when BP’s drill rig exploded, killing 11 workers and starting a flow that was at least 40 times greater than the government first estimated. It wasn’t until the end of May that the government finally got wise and greatly increased its clean-up effort, the reports noted.

As the Washington Post reports today:

"Putting aside the question of whether the public had a right to know the worst-case discharge figures, disclosure of those estimates, and explanation of their role in guiding the government effort, may have improved public confidence in the response," said one of the working papers by the staff of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill.

"Moreover," the paper added, "the national response may have benefited early on from a greater sense of urgency, which public discussion of worst-case discharge figures may have generated."

After the spill finally was halted, government officials were quick to announce that most of the 206 million gallons had either evaporated or had been eated up by microbes. Environmentalists, local Gulf authorities and scientists have challenged those conclusions, and there are indications that as much as half of the oil remains on the sea floor or is suspended in the water column.

As for the highly controversial and unprecedented massive spraying of dispersants (read about Earthjustice challenge), the commission offered a whitewash. Reports the Times-Picayune:

On the large-scale use of chemical dispersants to break up the oil, the commission staff says that in the view of experts,’ the "environmental trade off between the deep-ocean ecosystem and the shorelines made dispersants" was an acceptable choice.


From 2006–2014, Terry was managing editor for Earthjustice's blog, online monthly newsletter and print Earthjustice Quarterly Magazine.