Image: A worker shovels oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill
Patrick Semansky  /  AP
A worker shovels oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill off Fourchon Beach in Port Fourchon, La., on May 24, 2010.
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updated 11/24/2010 8:22:36 PM ET 2010-11-25T01:22:36

The Obama administration on Wednesday defended the integrity of estimates that turned out to be inaccurate showing how much oil spilled in the Gulf of Mexico, disclosing thousands of pages of internal e-mails written by government scientists on the project. "It is a guess," a senior U.S. scientist acknowledged to his colleagues.

The behind-the-scenes e-mails hint at uncertainties in what the government knew during the summer, even as its scientists wrestled over how to measure oil leaking from a runaway well a mile under the ocean. A senior scientist who led the federal effort, Bill Lehr of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, noted that the administration went public with a summary of estimates before experts could finish their work.

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"It's easy to second guess in hindsight the wisdom of presenting the five-page summary ... while we were still refining and improving its estimates," he wrote. "I personally wish that the report had included the uncertainty that we know exists and is built into the calculator." Lehr said the work represented "our best guess," adding: "Yes, it is a guess."

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson was "concerned about the level of certainty implied in the pie and cylinder charts." Another e-mail noticed that a pie chart in a draft of the government's report wasn't actually round: "A pie chart pretty much has to round to 100," NOAA spokeswoman Jennifer Austin wrote.

Lehr's top boss at NOAA, Jane Lubchenco, cautioned a colleague about how to present the government's findings: "I believe we owe it to everyone to provide the best estimates we can where direct measurements are not possible," she wrote. "We also need to be forthright about how certain we are about each number, which we've done."

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The e-mails were obtained by The Associated Press under the Freedom of Information Act.

U.S. officials clearly understood the possible economic consequences of their findings. Anticipating a question in August for an upcoming news conference, a NOAA spokeswoman asked scientists, "What impact, if any, will this report have in determining BP's financial liability for this spill?" The answer: The U.S. can fine BP up to $4,300 per barrel of oil that is counted as leaked.

The documents released Wednesday by the Commerce Department, NOAA's parent agency, were significant because they revealed conversations among scientists working on the forecasts of oil in the Gulf. The government released 5,817 pages of files late in the afternoon on the eve of Thanksgiving, traditionally a period when few people are paying attention to news reports because of holiday travel.

Measuring the spill accurately was important to decide how to respond appropriately and to the administration's credibility. But the government didn't arrive at a reliable estimate until June 15, nearly two months after the disaster began with the explosion and fire aboard the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig.

The government released the files to news organizations and Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., who with other lawmakers had asked for the records in August.

"The public has a right to know right now what is going on in the Gulf of Mexico, and your report should be analyzed by others right now so that we are sure we got it right," Markey told Lehr, who defended the government's estimates during congressional testimony.

Lehr subsequently confided to colleagues that none of the terrible places where he had studied past oil spills — freezing cold in Alaska, stifling heat in Louisiana or dodging missiles in Arabia — had prepared him for his unpleasant experience in Washington testifying to Congress.

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The presidential commission investigating the oil spill concluded last month in an interim report that government mistakes on its estimates led to perceptions that it was incompetent or not candid about the oil spill. It said federal officials underestimated the amount of oil flowing from the runaway well, then also underestimated the amount of oil that had spilled in the Gulf.

The panel also previously criticized statements by President Barack Obama's energy adviser, Carol Browner, who mischaracterized on national TV the government's analysis about where the oil went, saying it showed most of the oil was "gone." In a new study published Tuesday, the government itself acknowledged that its oil calculations were never intended to "provide information about the impact of the oil, nor indicate where the oil is now."

The newly disclosed documents also described leaks and accidental disclosures.

Administration officials worried at times about leaks and inadvertent Internet postings. Dan Leistikow at the Energy Department urgently sought access in June to high-resolution video of the runaway well that had already aired on CNN, which he said was "probably leaked from someone." It turned out that the Coast Guard had the video all along.

In another e-mail, Lehr threatened to resign from the government's team after the inadvertent disclosure of names of nongovernment scientists who were helping in the crisis.

"We as government officials have betrayed the trust these gentlemen placed in us," Lehr wrote to the head of the U.S. Geological Survey, Marcia McNutt.

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Associated Press writer Larry Margasak contributed to this report.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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