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Opening the Information Gusher on the Gulf Oil Tragedy

SOURCE: AP/Charles Dharapak

President Barack Obama makes a statement to reporters in Venice, LA, as he visits the Gulf Coast region last month. Americans need the Obama administration to establish a simple, clear, one-stop shop for information on all the related health, environmental, energy, and economic issues stemming from the BP oil disaster.

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We reached another grim milestone last weekend in the BP oil disaster when BP quietly and intentionally released the 1 millionth gallon of toxic dispersant into the gulf to try and mop up their oily mess. And by Friday, BP had already discharged approximately 1.16 million gallons of dispersant—800,000 on the surface and 360,000 subsea.

We know this because of public data the Obama administration released in their daily update from the Joint Information Center—one more data point in the grim litany of statistics leaking out of the region. The White House also gives up-to-the-minute updates on the administration’s actions on its website, and the Department of Energy provides online access to schematics, pressure tests, diagnostic results, and other data about spill monitoring. Transparency is essential to the administration’s response in order to hold BP properly accountable, inform clean up and recovery management strategies, and effectively communicate impacts to the public.

The administration deserves praise for its efforts at transparency, but still more can and must be done. It must continue to take the reins and give the American people an accurate picture of what is happening on the ground, and it must empower the press and citizens as their allies in this work. The people of the gulf region need a long-term commitment from the government that it will provide a single clearinghouse of public data, tracking the rapid response as well as the recovery effort, including the ongoing public health and economic consequences that will likely last for many years.

Americans are aware that BP’s handling of real-time information surrounding the oil disaster clean up has been deceptive, self-interested, and manipulative at best. BP has done much to mislead the public about the realities of the oil disaster. The company has purposely underestimated the amount of oil that’s polluted the gulf to protect its “vested financial interests” and denied media access to reporters who want to cover the real impacts of the disaster both on the shores and in the water. BP has focused as intensively on the public relations campaign as it has on ending this eruption of oil, pulling PR stunts like buying oil-related search terms to make its official site show up first in search engines and hiring Vice President Dick Cheney’s former press secretary to help with damage control.

What Americans really need is for the Obama administration to establish a simple, clear, one-stop shop for information on all the related health, environmental, energy, and economic issues stemming from the BP oil disaster.

To date the president has delivered on his core campaign pledge of transparency from his administration and has undertaken admirable measures to build the type of government that he envisioned. The Obama administration took a significant step forward in practicing what it preached when implementing the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The White House stated upfront goals for recovery, and assembled the Recovery Act Accountability and Transparency Board to hold the government accountable for achieving stated goals. The board, with a chairman and 12 inspectors general from various federal agencies, was established to serve as a mechanism for quality assurance of reported data.

The administration also formed Recovery.gov, a website maintained by the board that allows Internet users to track stimulus spending and report instances of waste, fraud, or abuse. The site actively engages the public in recovery with the intent of making them partners in governing in accordance with what is best for the public interest.

Simply put, the Recovery Act was able to function more efficiently and effectively because of the Obama administration’s commitment to objective, verifiable, and publicly accessible information.

Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change Policy Carol Browner has continued this effort in the wake of the oil disaster, hitting the airwaves to speak to the public’s concerns. The Obama administration should continue on this path and establish a similar long-term initiative to track the clean up of BP’s oil disaster, improve access to public services and assistance, and report on the necessary subsequent revitalization and rebuilding of economies and ecosystems within the Gulf region. We need a GulfRecovery.gov.

As President Obama assembles his National Commission to examine and provide recommendations for preventing future oil disasters, he should establish an independent Gulf Recovery Oversight Board to manage the cleanup and recovery efforts and make the information and data associated with them accessible to the public via GulfRecovery.gov. The government must remain the responsible party for key decision making on cleanup management and recovery. This includes monitoring the spill and cleanup technology, calling for environmental testing, managing health and lost-income claims, deciding arbitration strategy for disputes, and crafting a long-term plan for economic and environmental recovery of the gulf.

Open access to information will be the hallmark of this public accountability. Citizens will need data to be readily available on everything from immediately accessing emergency economic assistance to spatially understanding the impacts on closed shellfish beds or the clean up of effected ecosystems to tracking long-term public health impacts. Live data about the oil recovery efforts assists the nation in comprehending and responding rapidly to this growing disaster.

BP’s use of the 1 millionth gallon of chemical dispersants—the long-term health and environmental effects of which are not completely known, and the chemical composition of which are only now beginning to be reported—is just one reminder of how much information we are going to need to sift through on the long road to recovery. We will require complete, detailed, well-organized, and publicly accessible data to make good decisions in rebuilding lives and protecting public health, and we will need clear standards of public accountability and enforcement. We must avoid a response like that of the Environmental Protection Agency under the Bush administration after Hurricane Katrina, in which water, soil, and air quality sampling data was muddled, disorganized, and extremely difficult to analyze or navigate.

In the short term, the government must also ensure that BP honors Incident Commander Thad Allen’s directive to provide full and uninhibited media access to the gulf’s shorelines, and that BP not control video monitoring of the oil gush to avoid misleading footage. This openness may be uncomfortable for Big Oil companies that are accustomed to regulating themselves, but there can be no public confidence in any response efforts without full, complete, and public information. This requires certainty that control of all information is placed firmly in the hands of the people of the United States and their representatives in government, not the paid minions of British Petroleum or Haliburton as they brace for litigation. We are well past the point of any legitimate claims to proprietary information in this tragedy.

The administration should remain vigilant in this commitment to accountability and transparency just as U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder launched a criminal investigation of the oil disaster and promised a “forceful response” to any evidence of illegal behavior that may have contributed to it. BP cannot and should not be trusted to manage the real-time data and information associated with the oil disaster in the gulf because their inherently conflicted interests are not aligned with those of the American people. Building a universally accessible, comprehensive, and trusted source of information such as GulfRecovery.gov to guarantee public access to all information related to this tragedy is essential for a full and speedy recovery from this environmental and economic catastrophe.

President Obama and his administration have already done much to deliver on this core promise of transparency and accountability, both as a cornerstone of his presidency and within the immediate aftermath of the BP oil disaster. Staying the course with a robust commitment to public access to information over the long haul—throughout the response and throughout the recovery—will result in greater public confidence in the government’s response because the American people will be able to see for themselves in real time that the response is making a difference.

Bracken Hendricks is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. Tina Ramos is a Special Assistant for Energy and Environmental Policy at the Center for American Progress.

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