GULF SPILL:

White House, critics reach stalemate in dispute over oil budget

Neither the White House nor critics of an Obama administration report is crying uncle in a dispute over a government report suggesting that three-fourths of the oil in the Gulf of Mexico is "gone."

After being blasted by lawmakers, scientists and environmentalists in recent weeks, the administration is standing behind its claims that all but 26 percent of the oil is accounted for, despite widespread criticism that such a claim paints too rosy a picture of the situation in the Gulf.

At issue is the Aug. 4 interagency report that accounts for the spilled oil, indicating the amounts that have been burned, skimmed and dispersed and those that remain unaccounted for. Briefings at the White House and on morning news shows immediately following the report's release painted an optimistic picture of the situation in the Gulf.

Carol Browner, President Obama's top adviser on energy and climate issues, went so far as to say the report indicated "the vast majority of the oil is gone."

But scientists, lawmakers and environmentalists have blasted the administration's report and presentation, saying they downplay the severity of the spill.

Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Energy and Environment subpanel, blasted a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientist who contributed to the report during a rare recess hearing on Capitol Hill late last week, saying the report gives a "false sense of confidence" about the health of the Gulf in the wake of the disaster.

"Intended or not, the reaction to the oil budget report was one of relief," Markey said during the hearing. "People want to believe everything is OK, and I think this report and the way it is being discussed is giving many people a false sense of confidence regarding the state of the Gulf."

Bill Lehr, a NOAA senior scientist, defended the report's release but conceded that 10 percent of the 172 million gallons of oil that actually spilled into the Gulf -- and was not immediately captured by BP -- could truly be accounted for.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) has also blasted the administration's decision to release the report without data to back up its claims. And at least three groups of scientists have said they disagree with the government's conclusions in the report.

But administration officials are not backing down.

"We're comfortable with our numbers, and as we continue to learn more about what's happening below the surface and elsewhere, we will build that into our estimate," said National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration chief Jane Lubchenco in a hastily organized conference call with reporters after Thursday's hearing. "Given the heightened interest in the fate of the BP oil, we felt it was appropriate to release that information as soon as possible."

Lubchenco dismissed the controversy as "a tempest in a teapot." And retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen on Friday reiterated the government report's major finding: that all but 26 percent of the oil is accounted for.

'Lowballing'

But Markey continued his diatribe against the report this weekend, telling C-SPAN's "Newsmakers" program yesterday that the focus of the report is wrong.

"Under any estimate, at least five Exxon Valdez-size oil spills are still in the Gulf of Mexico unaccounted for," Markey said. "I think it's important for us to continue to focus on that, because rather than lowballing the size of the problem, I think that it's important for us to keep the pressure on so that everything that can be done is done in order to protect the long-term viability of the ecosystem in the Gulf and also the livelihood of the fishermen and others in the Gulf of Mexico."

But he stopped short of accusing the White House of purposely skewing the perception of the report.

"I don't know about that, but I do know that it should be double-checked right now by independent scientists," Markey said. "I think that the government when they released those numbers should have released their work with it so there could be a full understanding of the formulas, of the algorithms, or the assumptions that were used in coming to that conclusion."

Markey and Issa have both called on the administration to release the data and models so independent scientists can verify them and determine "whether or not they may have been over-optimistic," Markey said.

But Lubchenco is standing firm on the decision to hold off on the release of that information for two months.

"The report and the calculations that went into it were reviewed by independent scientists," Lubchenco said on Thursday's call. "And we are pulling together the full background information that would go into a more comprehensive report."

Markey also wants to see "massive testing" of seafood, particularly in the more heavily oiled areas where fishing is not currently permitted. Much of the testing from the Food and Drug Administration and NOAA has centered around fish extracted from the areas they have reopened to fishing.

The congressman claims to have eaten seafood, including some from the Gulf, every day for the past week but said there needs to be more work done to assure consumers of its safety. In particular, he wants federal researchers to be on the lookout for potential long-term effects from metals that can accumulate in fish -- not just the oil that is more quickly processed.

"To give guaranteed assurances to the public to ensure there is no long-term harm, I think there has to be an intensification of testing work that is done," Markey told C-SPAN.

Reporters Allison Winter and Mike Soraghan contributed.

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