The White House tampered with language in a controversial Interior Department report on its deepwater drilling moratorium, implying a group of independent scientists supported language recommending the ban, according to the agency's watchdog.
Interior's inspector general said edits made by the White House to the Interior report "led to the implication that the moratorium recommendation had been peer reviewed by the experts."
At issue is the May 27 report on oil and gas drilling safety that was compiled at President Obama's request after the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, sparking the nation's worst oil spill. The report made several recommendations for safety improvements at offshore drilling rigs and called for the six-month ban on deepwater drilling and permitting.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar tapped 15 experts to review the safety recommendations made in the main body of the report, but they never endorsed the moratorium and later blasted Interior's use of their names to support the ban.
"There is an implication that we have somehow agreed to or 'peer-reviewed' the main recommendation of that report," the advisers wrote in a memorandum to Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) and the state's U.S. senators, Mary Landrieu (D) and David Vitter (R) in June. Salazar "should be free to recommend whatever he thinks is correct, but he should not be free to use our names to justify his political decisions" (E&ENews PM, June 9).
Interior Inspector General Mary Kendall said the White House made the changes during the editing process implying the advisers had reviewed the moratorium language.
After reviewing e-mails exchanged between Interior and the White House, Kendall said the Interior version of the report discussed the moratorium on the first page of the executive summary, while the language describing the advisers' role was discussed on the second page, immediately followed by the summary list of safety recommendations included in the peer-reviewed main body of the report.
But when the White House returned the edited version to Interior, the language describing the advisers' role had been moved to immediately follow the moratorium language, Kendall said.
"This caused the distinction between the Secretary's moratorium recommendation -- which had not been peer reviewed -- and the safety recommendations contained in the 30-Day Report -- which had been peer reviewed -- to become effectively lost," Kendall wrote in her report made public today.
While the inspector general's account says the report could have been "more clearly worded," it does not fault Interior or the White House for deliberately misleading the public. And it cites Steve Black, a counselor to Salazar who led the Interior team that produced the report, as saying the rush to finish it led to the oversight.
"Black stated that it was no one's intention to imply that the peer reviewers reviewed the six-month moratorium on deepwater drilling policy decision," the IG report says. "He explained that due to the rush to complete the report and the executive summary, time did not allow for careful editing and review of the executive summary."
Interior spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff also said there was no intent to mislead the public. "The decision to impose a temporary moratorium on deepwater drilling was made by the secretary, following consultation with colleagues including the White House," she said in an e-mailed statement.
Barkoff noted Interior's efforts after the report was released to apologize to the reviewers. And several of the advisers interviewed for the IG report said that after Salazar explained the issue, they believed that it had been a "mistake."
But the Gulf state lawmakers who called for Kendall to prepare the report are not convinced.
"This report reveals exactly what I suspected all along -- Obama administration officials appear to have deliberately disregarded the Information Quality Act to push their destructive moratorium that has crushed job growth along the Gulf Coast," Vitter said in a statement.
"I initially requested this investigation on June 16 because I wanted to make sure that the federal government was basing policy decisions that would directly impact so many Louisianians on science -- not politics," he added. "Unfortunately, this report reveals the contrary."
The original moratorium discussed in the May 27 report was overturned by a federal judge in June, but Interior quickly imposed a new ban in July. That suspension ended last month.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
Click here to read the inspector general's report.