Nightly News   |  June 10, 2010

Report: Feds may have low-balled flow rate

Rolling Stone magazine has published an investigative report that raises new questions about whether the Obama administration leveled with the public about the Gulf oil spill's possible worst case scenario. NBC Senior Investigative Correspondent Lisa Myers reports.

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This content comes from a Full-Text Transcript of the program.

BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: A new development in this gulf oil disaster. Just tonight, Admiral Thad Allen , the man in charge of the recovery, says he wants to meet with BP officials and government officials together in the same room in the coming days, and that will include, from time to time in some of the meetings, President Obama .

BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: Now we turn to that question of what the government knew about how bad the leak could be and how much they told the public. Rolling Stone magazine is out with an explosive look at the chain of events as it unfolded early on in this crisis. This raises questions about whether some in the government leveled with the public about the possible worst-case scenario. We also took a look at it. Here with our story tonight, our senior investigative correspondent Lisa Myers .

LISA MYERS reporting: Within hours after the Deepwater Horizon rig sank into the ocean on April 22nd , this behind-the-scenes video captured scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration , NOAA , participating in a conference call about the oil disaster.

Unidentified Man #1: Showing where the oil might go.

MYERS: Clearly written on this board was what the White House now says was a worst-case scenario at that time, that 64,000 to 110,000 barrels of oil a day could leak into the Gulf .

Unidentified Woman #1: We need to be prepared for it to be the spill of the decade.

MYERS: Initially the Coast Guard official in charge quoted BP 's estimate that the well was leaking 1,000 barrels a day. After an internal NOAA document warned that oil was leaking from two more sites and the number could be worse, the government adjusted.

Rear Admiral MARY LANDRY (United States Coast Guard): While BP believes and we believed and established a thousand-barrel-per-day estimate of what is leaking from the well, NOAA experts believe the output can be as much as 5,000 barrel.

MYERS: Eventually pressure from Congress forced BP to release underwater video and acknowledge that BP 's early estimates were as much as 14,000 barrels a day. That triggered a rash of higher estimates by independent experts. Tim Dickinson , a reporter for Rolling Stone magazine , says the government was intent on controlling the message.

Mr. TIM DICKINSON: When scientists -- indeed, NOAA scientists -- started coming out with their own independent estimates, they had pushback, substantial pushback from NOAA saying, `Are you sure you want to say this? Do you want to go there?'

MYERS: A month passed, and a group of scientists convened by Admiral Thad Allen increased the government estimate to at least 12 to 25,000 barrels a day. Asked yesterday if the government had deliberately lowballed how much

oil was leaking, Allen said this: Well, first of all, I think at this point I am the government , and we are not lowballing. We have a bunch of technical experts got together and they came up with two ranges, 12 to 19 and 12 to 25,000.

Adm. ALLEN: But a scientist who helped arrive at those numbers told NBC News that Allen misstated their groups findings, that at the time those numbers were the minimum range. The maximum range had not yet been determined. Another scientist, Dr. Tim Crone , a geophysicist who's independently measured the leak, estimates that before the cap 30 to 50,000 barrels a day probably were gushing into the ocean. He's puzzled by the government 's statement.

MYERS: It certainly seems that there might have been an effort to minimize these numbers, but I really can't understand why.

Dr. TIM CRONE (Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory): The White House emphatically denies that there was ever any attempt to minimize the size of the leak, and notes that the president warned from the beginning this could be a terrible disaster. A spokesman also says NOAA 's early numbers were a worst-case scenario, while subsequent government estimates were about how much actually was leaking. Tonight, the government 's number went up again to as much as 40,000 barrels a day. Lisa Myers , NBC News, Washington.