I remember the gradual inflation of numbers during the BP oil disaster. First BP would say that 1,000 barrels a day was being released, when 5,000, then 10,000, and so on, never quite reaching the actual figure of 53,000 barrels a day.

The government would generally back up BP’s estimates, and only changed when they changed. Now we learn from Kate Sheppard that the White House actually leaned on their own scientists to lowball the amount of oil being released from the busted well. The group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) has released a series of emails that show this in action:

The group released a May 29, 2010 email from Dr. Marcia McNutt, the director of the US Geologic Survey and head of the government’s Flow Rate Technical Group (FRTG), that was released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. The email came after scientists on the flow-rate team complained to McNutt about how the spill figures were conveyed to the press, and in response she cited pressure from the White House as the reason the numbers were low-balled. Rather than reporting that the lower-end estimate of the spill was 25,000 barrels per day, officials cited that figure as the higher-end estimate:

“I cannot tell you what a nightmare the past two days have been dealing with the communications people at the White House, DOI, and the NIC who seem incapable of understanding the concept of a lower bound. The press release that went out on our results was misleading and was not reviewed by a scientist for accuracy.”

McNutt’s email reportedly came in response to complaints from scientists on the team about how the flow rate had been handled.

Fortunately this didn’t come from a whistleblower, or all of PEER would be in jail right now.

In a much more serious complaint against NOAA scientist Dr. William Lehr, who led the plume analysis team studying the flow of oil, PEER accuses him of manipulating scientific results to underestimate the spill rate.

Lehr was leader of one of the most important FRTG teams, the “Plume Team” which analyzed videos of the oil leaks to produce the first estimates. Three of the 13 Plume Team experts used a technique called Particle Image Velocimetry (PIV) to estimate a leak rate in the range of 25,000 bpd. But three other experts on the Plume Team reported that PIV was underestimating the size of the leak by more than 50%. Those three experts used a different technology to correctly peg the leak rate at 50,000 to 60,000 bpd.

Yet Lehr did not tell the public or key decision makers that there was a deep split on the Plume Team. In the Plume Team’s Final Report, the body of which Lehr wrote, he reported that “most of the Plume Team used PIV” which produced “consistent and accurate” estimates. These underestimates were repeated to the public and media.

The lower estimates reduced the sense of urgency around capping the well among the public, if not among the White House. I don’t think BP got away without a tarnished image, but the actual figure of oil released plays a major factor in their Clean Water Act fines. So if the scientists were successful in manipulating the data, it could have saved BP billions of dollars.

The case is in litigation at the moment. But PEER has at least some of the data to back up their claims. The best-case scenario here is that the White House was ignorant of how estimates worked on spill data. The worst-case is that they were covering for BP.