Kiran Stacey White House skewed report on deepwater drilling ban

Here’s an interesting story from the States with potentially serious political implications.

The US interior department’s inspector general has carried out an investigation into why the government’s  moratorium on deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, implemented in the wake of the BP oil spill, looked like it had been peer-reviewed, when it had not.

The investigation found the following sequence of events:

Late April – Obama asks Ken Salazar (pictured right, with the president), the interior secretary, to produce a report looking at safety practices for deepwater oil drilling. Salazar places his counselor, Steve Black, in charge.

April/May – At the request of the president, Black contacts seven experts recommended by the National Academy of Engineering to help with the report. These peer reviewers gave feedback on the suggestions that went into the report.

May 24 – Black holds a final conference call with the peer reviewers in which they discussed a draft of the report. They discuss some parameters of a potential moratorium on deepwater drilling, but the final recommendation for a ban is never reviewed.

May 25 – Salazar sends a memo to Obama outlining his findings, including a recommendation for a 6-month moratorium. Obama asks to sleep on the decision, so Salazar tells Black to draft to executive summaries, one including the ban and one not.

May 26 – Salazar tells Black to work with White House staff on an executive summary which includes the moratorium. At 11.38, Black sends a draft to the White House. This draft mentions the moratorium on the first page of the report, and then on the second, lists the safety recommendations. Immediately following those recommendations, which had been peer reviewed, it states:

The recommendations contained in this report have been peer-reviewed by seven experts identified by the National Academy of Engineering.

At 2.13am, the White House sends back two final versions, both of which have moved the above sentence to appear immediately following the moratorium recommendation.

The impression is given that the scientists peer-reviewed the moratorium decision, which they had not. They then sent an angry letter to members of Congress to protest, and that protest became public. Cue hasty backpedalling from the Obama administration.

The question is, did the White House deliberately mislead? No one wants to venture an opinion. The investigator’s report merely states:

All DOI officials interviewed stated that it was never their intention to imply the moratorium was peer-reviewe by experts, but rather rushed editing of the executive summary by DOI and the White House resulted in this implication.

Either way, it will add fuel to the claims of companies like Ensco, which alleges the White House is unfairly punishing deepwater drillers.

Even if it doesn’t have a material impact on Ensco’s current lawsuit, which claims that the rules imposed after the moratorium meant that drilling was still being blocked, it could have important implications for public trust in the administration’s handling of this disaster.