Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Amount and Fate of the Oil

This draft Report from the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling finds that the federal government‟s estimates of the amount of oil flowing into and later remaining in the Gulf of Mexico in the aftermath of the Macondo well explosion were the source of significant controversy, which undermined public confidence in the federal government‟s response to the spill.

By initially underestimating the amount of oil flow and then, at the end of the summer, appearing to underestimate the amount of oil remaining in the Gulf, the federal government created the impression that it was either not fully competent to handle the spill or not fully candid with the American people about the scope of the problem.

The absence of trust fuels public fears, and those fears in turn can cause major harm, whether because the public loses confidence in the federal government‟s assurances that beaches or seafood are safe, or because the government‟s lack of credibility makes it harder to build relationships with state and local officials, as well as community leaders, that are necessary for effective response actions.

This working paper first tells the story of the government‟s struggle to accurately estimate the rate of oil flow from the Macondo well. It next discusses the debate surrounding the government‟s report on the fate of the oil.

More extensive, peer-reviewed government reports, which will allow for greater substantive evaluation of government estimates related to flow rate and fate, are forthcoming.

In the meantime, this paper discusses some of the key government estimates with a view towards eventual Commission findings regarding whether flow-rate estimates should have been more accurate from the outset, and whether the government presented information regarding the amount and fate of the oil to the public in an appropriate manner. Commission staff believe that recommendations aimed at improving the quality of information provided to the public are critical to improving public confidence, and thus to the success of future emergency responses.

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