BP Should Change Research Plan

When BP announced – largely in response to Congressional pressure – that it would spend $500 million on scientific research into the impacts of the Gulf disaster, it sounded like a step in the right direction.  But the way BP has proposed to allocate its research money could needlessly raise questions about the value of the research and complicate the government’s efforts to hold BP responsible for the damage caused by the oil now gushing into the Gulf. 

These problems would be easy to avoid, and BP ought to change its plans to ensure that the public – not just BP – benefits from the research that gets funded.  NRDC sent BP a letter yesterday that lays out what needs to be done.

First, though, it’s important to be clear on why this scientific research is so critical.  The research could include figuring out what’s happening to all the oil that’s pouring into the gulf – some of it now in underwater plumes, how the oil is affecting different species and ecosystems, whether and how ecosystems recover from being inundated with oil, how different response and restoration methods work, the impact of the unprecedented use of dispersants, and so on. 

The fact is we know remarkably little about the full range of impacts of oil on ecosystems and what to do about them, and even less about what happens when the oil release is so deep underwater.  That means the research done now could have an enormous impact on the long-term response to this disaster, how planning is done for future incidents (and as long as oil drilling continues, so will spills), and what regulatory requirements are imposed on oil drilling, including where it is allowed to take place.   And the research could also be used to determine what penalties BP will pay because some of those are based on assessing how much damage has been done to natural resources.

Needless to say, then, BP has a lot at stake in what scientists conclude from studying what’s happening in the Gulf.  And that’s why skepticism was in order when BP announced that a panel it selects would decide which scientists would conduct what kinds of research.  BP is hardly a disinterested party, and a panel that serves at the pleasure of BP could hardly be seen as “independent.”  This is especially true since BP has not been very interested in the free flow of information thus far.  Its unwillingness to share information about the magnitude of the oil flow is the most obvious example.

It’s also important to recognize that there are many ways to skew a scientific agenda.  The issue is rarely so blatant as paying to get a desired result.  Rather, companies can select scientists known to have certain views on the questions at issue.  Or even more importantly, if more subtly, they can pay only for research into certain questions or using certain methods – research that is less likely to touch on matters that make the sponsor uncomfortable.     

The good news is that it’s easy to come up with a research system that would actually be independent.  Probably the best way to do this would be for BP to hand over the money to a respected scientific body, such as the National Academy of Sciences (which is not part of the government), and have that group assemble a panel of scientists to select research projects and disburse the funds.  Any research should be published, without any review or control by BP, and scientists conducting the work should be free to testify in court for anyone. 

Such a system would be fair (including to BP) and open, would ensure the public can benefit from whatever is learned, and would prevent BP from “buying up” any scientist who might testify for the government about natural resource damages.        

The worst thing BP could do now is to make it even harder for the public to learn from BP’s mistakes.