|The explosion of BP's rig killed 11 people and caused widespread pollution [AFP]
The US government has been accused of blocking efforts by scientists to inform the public about just how bad the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico could become.
A commission appointed by Barack Obama, the US president, to investigate the disaster said in a draft report that his administration was either not fully competent to handle the situation or not completely honest.
"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 report, released on Wednesday, has concluded.
The explosion of BP's oil drilling rig on April 20 killed 11 workers and spewed almost 5 million barrels of oil into the sea over the following few months.
Citing interviews with government officials, the report revealed that in late April or early May, the White House budget office denied a request from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to make public its worst-case estimate of how much oil could spew from the blown-out well.
The commission also criticised Obama's senior energy adviser for mischaracterising a government analysis on national television by saying it showed most of the oil was "gone".
"I think it's also important to note that our scientists have done an initial assessment, and more than three-quarters of the oil is gone," Carol Browner, director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy, said on NBC's "Today" show.
But the analysis never said it was gone, according to the commission. It said it was dispersed, dissolved or evaporated, which meant it could still be there.
Shortly after the oil rig exploded, the Coast Guard estimated that a relatively manageable 1,000 barrels a day was flowing into the Gulf of Mexico.
But Wednesday's report said it seemed the Coast Guard was simply relaying figures provided by BP without further documentation.
By August, Steven Chu, the energy secretary, estimated that 62,000 barrels a day had in fact been gushing into the Gulf in the early stages, declining slightly to 53,000 barrels by the time the well
was capped in July.
The administration disputed the commission's findings, saying senior government officials "were clear with the public what the worst-case flow rate could be".
In a statement on Wednesday, officials pointed out that in early May, Ken Salazar, the interior secretary, and Thad Allen of the Coast Guard told the public that the worst-case scenario could be more than 100,000 barrels a day.
"The federal government response was full force and immediate, and the response focused on state and local plans and evolved when needed," a White House statement said.
"As directed by the president, the response was based on science, even when that pitted us against BP or state and local officials, and the response pushed BP every step of the way," it said.
The report found no evidence that operations were scaled back due to low estimates, saying that responders insisted they acted in line with worst-case scenarios.
"Even if responders are correct, however, loss of the public's trust during a disaster is not an incidental public relations problem," the report said.
"The absence of trust fuels public fears, and those fears in turn can cause major harm," it said, adding that the public may be now be less confident in government assurances that Gulf seafood is safe.