Interior IG traces deepwater ban peer review misunderstanding

The administration of US President Barack Obama incorrectly implied that a late-May recommendation for a deepwater drilling moratorium following the Macondo well accident and oil spill went through a scientific peer review, an investigation by the US Department of the Interior’s inspector general’s office found.

Nov 11th, 2010

Nick Snow
OGJ Washington Editor

WASHINGTON, DC, Nov. 11 -- The administration of US President Barack Obama incorrectly implied that a late-May recommendation for a deepwater drilling moratorium following the Macondo well accident and oil spill went through a scientific peer review, an investigation by the US Department of the Interior’s inspector general’s office found.

Its report said that scientists and oil and gas industry experts expressed concern that the executive summary of a 30-day report US Interior Sec. Ken Salazar prepared following the accident, which included a policy decision to seek a 6-month deepwater drilling moratorium, was worded in a way that suggested they peer-reviewed and supported the decision when they in fact had not done so.

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

It said that Interior IG office investigators determined, after examining drafts of the executive summary which the White House and DOI exchanged before the final version was issued, that White House editing of the original DOI draft executive summary led to the implication that the moratorium had gone through a peer review.

The report also noted that Salazar ordered his counselor, Steve Black, who led the team which produced the 30-day report, to write the scientists and experts who had expressed their concerns and apologize for the misunderstanding.

Implication unintentional
“By listing you as a member of the [National Academy of Engineering] panel that peer-reviewed the 22 safety recommendations contained in the report, we did not mean to imply that you also agreed with the decision to impose a moratorium on all new deepwater drilling,” Black’s June 3 letter said.

“We acknowledge that you were not asked to review or comment on the proposed moratorium,” it continued. “The recommendation and decision were based on the report’s safety recommendations, in particular the need for new blowout preventer and other safety equipment on subsea BOP stacks used on floating drilling rigs and the need for better wild-well intervention techniques in the event of future emergencies like the BP oil spill, particularly in deepwater.”

“Sec. Salazar's letter speaks for itself. There was no intent to mislead the public,” a DOI spokeswoman told OGJ on Nov. 10. “The decision to impose a temporary moratorium on deepwater drilling was made by the secretary, following consultation with colleagues including the White House. 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.”

The Interior IG’s office said it conducted its investigation in response to a June 16 request by US Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) and Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) and one by US House Natural Resources Committee Ranking Minority Member Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) and six other Republicans on the committee.

“The inspector general’s finding that the blanket drilling moratorium was driven by politics and not by science is bitter news for families who, because of it, lost their jobs, savings, and way of life,” said US Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), one of the Natural Resources committee Republicans who sought the inquiry.

Obama promised as a candidate that he would be guided by science, not ideology, he continued. “If that was true, at least 12,000 jobs and $1.8 billion of economic activity would have been saved on the Gulf Coast,” Cassidy said.

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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