BP’s efforts to control research dealing with the impact of the Gulf Oil Spill have been uncovered and it doesn’t paint a very good picture of how BP operates. It was reported that BP officials tried to take control of a $500 million fund pledged by the oil company for independent research into the consequences of the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster. Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act revealed that BP officials openly discussed how to influence the work of scientists supported by the fund, which was created by the oil company in May last year. Russell Putt, a BP environmental expert, wrote in an email to colleagues on June 24, 2010:
Can we ‘direct’ GRI (Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative) funding to a specific study (as we now see the governor’s offices trying to do)? What influence do we have over the vessels/equipment driving the studies vs the questions?
The email was obtained by Greenpeace and shared with the Guardian. The documents reinforce fears voiced by scientists that BP has too much leverage and influence over studies into the impact of last year’s oil disaster. Those concerns go far beyond academic interest into the impact of the spill. BP faces billions in fines and penalties, and possible criminal charges arising from the disaster. Its total liability will depend in part on a final account produced by scientists on how much oil entered the Gulf from its blown-out well, and the damage done to marine life and coastal areas in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. The oil company has disputed the government estimate that 4.1 million barrels of oil entered the Gulf.
While there is no evidence in the emails that BP officials were successful in directing research, it’s very clear that was their intent. Fortunately, the fund has since established procedures to protect its independence. Other documents obtained by Greenpeace suggest that the politics of oil spill science was not confined to BP. For example, the White House clashed with officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency last summer when drafting the administration’s account of what has happened to the spilled oil. It certainly seems like the government wanted the public to believe things were much better than they really were. On occasion, it appeared the government was defending BP and the other wrongdoers and not really helping the victims of the spill.
Another email, written by Karen Ragoonanan-Jalim, a BP environmental officer based in Trinidad, contains minutes of a meeting in Houma, La., in which officials discussed what kind of studies might best serve the oil company’s interests. Under agenda item two, the BP official writes:
Discussions around GRI and whether or not BP can influence this long-term research programme ($500m) to undertake the studies we believe will be useful in terms of understanding the fate and effects of the oil on the environment, eg can we steer the research in support of restoration ecology?
The BP official acknowledges that BP may not have that degree of control. “It may be possible for us to suggest the direction of the studies but without guarantee that they will be done,” she said. The email goes on to say: “How do we determine what biological/ecological studies we (BP) will need to do in order to satisfy specific requirements (legislative/litigation, informing the response and remediation/restoration strategies).” Having dealt with BP and witnessing its power and influence in Washington, I wasn’t at all surprised that the oil giant attempted to control the badly-needed research. When you consider the oil giant’s very effective public relations campaign, at a cost in excess of $200 million, this was to be expected.
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