BP Blowout Anniversary: "What's Under Elmer's Island?"

April 20, 2011

A year after the Gulf oil spill, many scientists rate the health of the Gulf ecosystem as nearly back to normal. BP, whose Deepwater Horizon well blew out and leaked for nearly four months, was earning profits and paying dividends again despite having set aside $20 billion to pay damages. So why does BP continue to pay armed guards to prevent TV crews from seeing its tarballs?

Denial of news media access to Gulf beaches has been an issue for most of the year since the BP blowout — despite BP statements that it is not doing what it is doing, and Coast Guard statements that its policies do not allow the restrictions it allows.

Journalists who insist may eventually get access to the beaches if accompanied by government and company "minders" who steer them past the tarballs and abandoned rakes.

More serious, perhaps, is the tussle over access to (and interpretation of) scientific information on possible impacts of the spill on the Gulf ecosystem. In this complex game, BP, the federal government, scientific researchers, and news media all play a part. But is the public getting the fullest, fairest, and most accurate story possible? That is not so clear.

The murkiness of the science was captured in two Associated Press headlines, only a day apart. One read: "Gulf Health Nearly At Pre-Spill Level." The other read: "Scientist Finds Gulf Bottom Still Oily, Dead." Not only is the ecological situation changing, but scientific understanding of it is changing as well. In such a situation, the slightest difference in emphasis in a news article or headline can mean a big change in the spin of the story.

Lack of information does not help. A lot of the existing scientific information is locked up where the public — and many scientists — can not see it. Under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, a "Natural Resources Damage Assessment" (NRDA, pronounced "nerd-a") is conducted to determine how much BP and other responsible parties must pay. This is a quasi-legal proceeding, and one consequence is that BP, the federal agencies, and other parties keep their data secret until damages are agreed on between the conflicting parties ("A Year After Oil Spill, Researchers Putting Gulf Ecosystem Under Microscope," The Times-Picayune, April 19, 2011, by Bob Marshall). The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) does release some of its raw data.

Another problem is that a large fraction of all the scientists qualified and available for Gulf impacts research are tied up doing research for one side or the other in the dispute. Only a small fraction are available for truly independent research. From one perspective, it seems creditworthy that BP has declared it will fund some $500 million in research; but from another perspective, that may mean fewer scientists doing independent, disinterested work. BP said it would spend the money for "independent" research. But recently, in-house BP memos have come to light that suggest BP was hoping to manipulate the research it was funding. The UK Guardian published the story.

The Guardian actually obtained the memos from Greenpeace, which during the past year has filed a series of Freedom of Information Act requests to get them. Greenpeace has some 30,000 pages of documents, with more streaming in every day. The environmental advocacy group actually has more documents than it can go through, so it has appealed for help. Greenpeace has set up an open public website for the documents, which may yield further stories for some enterprising journalist.