White House Edits Mischaracterized Moratorium Report

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The White House misrepresented conclusions included in an Interior Department report to suggest that independent experts supported a six-month moratorium on offshore drilling the administration enacted following the Deepwater Horizon disaster, a report from Interior’s Inspector General finds. The IG report points to the office of White House Energy and Climate adviser Carol Browner as the source of the mistaken information.

On May 27, 2010, an email sent at 2:13 a.m. from one of Browner’s included two edited versions of the executive summary of a report President Obama had requested about deepwater drilling safety. The draft versions were very similar, and both made it appear that seven outside experts had peer-reviewed and endorsed the six-month moratorium Secretary Ken Salazar issued later that day. The version of the report made public with Salazar’s annoucement of the moratorium included the line, “The recommendations contained in this report have been peer-reviewed by seven experts identified by the National Academy of Engineering.”

But while the reviewers had looked at the conclusions of other experts and exmaned the Interior’s recommendations on how to proceed with offshore drilling, they had not in fact been asked to weigh in on the whether to establish the 6 month moratorium, contrary to what the report edited by Browner’s office implied. The IG report (first obtained by Politico) concludes:

Both versions, however, revised and re-ordered the Executive Summary, placing the peer review language immediately following the moratorium recommendation causing the distinction between the Secretary’s moratorium recommendation—which had not been peer-reviewed—and the recommendations contained in the 30-Day Report—which had been peer-reviewed—to become effectively lost.

After the report’s release, one of the reviewers, an engineer from the National Academy of Engineering, raised concerns about the misrepresentation in a letter to Louisiana Senators Mary Landrieu (D) and David Vitter (R), and Gov. Bobby Jindal. The letter was co-signed by several other members of the panel.

Salazar later held teleconference with the concerned reviewers to apologize for the mischaracterization, indicating it been a simple error rather than a proactive attempt to mislead. The engineer who initially raised concerns said he accepted the explanation that it “was a mistake rather than an intentional attempt to use the peer-reviewers’ names to justify a political decision.”

But this isn’t the first time that Browner’s office has been fingered for misrepresenting a conclusion related to the oil spill as “peer-reviewed.” Browner also mischaracterized a report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on the location of the oil from the spill, saying it had been peer-reviewed when in fact the individuals listed as reviewers said they never saw the final product.

While Browner’s role is indeed interesting, perhaps most telling in the IG report is what it says about who wasn’t in the loop about the decision to extend the moratorium—specifically, Elizabeth Birnbaum, who was at the time head of the Minerals Managment Service, which oversees offshore drilling. The report states that Birnbaum “had no knowledge that Secretary Salazar planned on recommending the moratorium in the Executive Summary of the 30-Day Report to the President.” Birnbaum was dismissed from that post on May 27, the same day that report was released. But even if she was on her way out the door, you’d think she would have at least been brought into the discussions seeing as she was the head of the division overseeing offshore drilling.

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