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Interior Department report on oil drilling moratorium misleading

The inspector general finds that an Obama administration report mistakenly implied that oil industry experts had reviewed and approved a ban on deep-water drilling after the gulf oil spill.

November 10, 2010|By Neela Banerjee, Tribune Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — An Obama administration report last summer wrongly implied that independent oil industry experts had reviewed and approved its moratorium on deep-water drilling after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, an investigation by the Interior Department's inspector general has found.

The finding caps a controversy that began when a May 27 Interior Department report on stepped-up safety measures, including a moratorium on deep-water drilling, stated that the recommendations "have been peer-reviewed by seven experts identified by the National Academy of Engineering."

Ten days later, the experts publicly distanced themselves from the report, saying they agreed with the technical recommendations but had not reviewed the moratorium. They objected to their names being used "to justify" political decisions.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar apologized to the experts, asserting that his department had made a mistake.

The inspector general's report, released Wednesday, was in response to a June request by Republican members of Congress.

Investigators found that the experts had never been asked to review the moratorium, and the Interior Department had not intended to suggest they had. Rather, a mistake had occurred as late drafts of the May report shuttled between the Interior Department and the White House.

The inspector general "determined that the White House edit of the original [Interior Department] draft executive summary led to the implication that the moratorium recommendation had been peer-reviewed by the experts."

The inspector general found that the experts themselves, when contacted by Salazar's office, felt that a mistake had been made.

"There was no intent to mislead the public," said Kendra Barkoff, an Interior Department spokeswoman. "As the report makes clear, the misunderstanding with the reviewers was resolved with the June 3 letter and a subsequent conference call with those experts."

Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton said that "the White House properly coordinated review for a draft document, incorporating comments and feedback from White House offices and other agencies with expertise." Any misunderstanding about the experts' position, Burton said, was quickly corrected by the Interior Department.

The online version of the May 27 report remains unchanged, however, retaining the suggestion that experts had peer-reviewed a moratorium proposal.

The issue of scientific integrity is especially sensitive because, as a presidential candidate, Barack Obama pledged to treat science more respectfully than he said the George W. Bush administration had. Obama said he would not misrepresent experts' views to serve his policy goals.

Recently, staff reports from the president's oil spill commission said that over the summer, the White House may have suppressed some scientific information relevant to the spill and that its top environmental advisor, Carol Browner, had said inaccurately that most of the oil from the spill had "gone."

Poised to take control of the House in January, Republicans characterized the findings as a worrisome sign of the administration's indifference to scientific accuracy.

In a written statement, Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.), the ranking member of the subcommittee on investigations and oversight, said, "This glib approach to science and how it informs policy decisions deserves our continued attention in the next Congress."

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