White House 'muzzled own scientists over oil spill fears'

The White House was facing allegations yesterday that it had muzzled its own scientists in the early days and weeks of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill so that the public would be ignorant of the potential scale of the environmental disaster that was unfolding.

A paper written for the National Commission established by President Barack Obama to investigate what happened suggests that officials at the White House stood in the way of scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) when they were preparing to release details of a worst-case scenario for the blow-out including a top-end estimate of the rate of flow of oil into the sea.

In a second report also written for the Commission, investigators say that "for the first 10 days of the spill, it appears that a sense of over-optimism affected responders".

As the spill worsened BP came under wide criticism for allegedly attempting to downplay the scale of the leak. The findings of the National Commission indicate that the government in Washington was playing a similar game.

In the days immediately after the explosion, both Washington and BP said they were assuming a leak rate of between 1,000 and 5,000 barrels a day. But in the weeks after the leak rate was revised upwards in several increments and by early August stood at 62,000 barrels a day.

The paper says that the "decision to withhold worst-case discharge figures" may have been made at a high level, suggesting that the President himself may have been involved.

Robert Gibbs, spokesman for President Obama, said the White House had always offered "the most accurate and timely information" on the amount of oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico as soon as it became available.

But the Commission paper claims that the White House's Office of Management and Budget (OMB) declined to give scientists at NOAA authorisation when they "wanted to make public some of its long-term, worst-case discharge models".

An OMB spokesman, Kenneth Baer, acknowledged that authorisation had been withheld, but said it was because of concerns about the models scientists were using and not about flow rates or what the public should or shouldn't know. "The issue was the modelling, the science and the assumptions they were using to come up with their analysis. Not public relations or presentation. We offered them suggestions of ways to improve it and they happily accepted it," he said.

After the explosion that killed 11 rig workers, Washington took several days before declaring an emergency.