Commentary: White House shouldn't have downplayed BP oil spill's severity

It didn't make sense: After an oil rig explosion killed 11 and began spewing uncontrolled oil into the Gulf of Mexico, the Obama White House downplayed the severity of the problem. At first it said there was little impact, perhaps no more than 1,000 barrels of oil leaking into the Gulf. Then it was maybe 5,000 barrels of oil per day, about the same as what BP was saying.

But the pictures of oil gushing out of the ruined pipe and the plumes of oil that soon tainted the Gulf's surface undermined what the oil company and the White House were insisting. And geologists and other scientists were making different calculations of much higher spill levels that, as it turns out, more closely reflected the truth.

Now a commission appointed by President Barack Obama has issued a draft report that criticizes the White House for failing to inform the public about the size of the spill, failing to respond quickly to the enormity of the spill and once more misleading the public in late summer by dramatically underestimating the amount of oil left in the Gulf.

In doing so, "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."

White House spokesmen are trying their best to blunt the report's pointed criticism, but this is a case where public relations efforts come far too late. In this case, the only rational course for the administration to take last spring was to come forward with persuasive estimates of what was happening. The absurd notion that 5,000 barrels of oil spilling into the Gulf could create so many problems for aquatic life, waterfowl and humans simply did not add up.

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