BP Is Poised to Obstruct or Buy Scientific Research in the Gulf

BP recently announced it will provide $500 million to scientists for research into the Deepwater Horizon disaster's impact on the Gulf of Mexico. While I believe BP should contribute to the cost of studying the spill, the company is already starting to complicate--rather than illuminate--scientific understanding.

As NRDC Executive Director Peter Lehner wrote in a letter to BP's Tony Hayward, if the company wants to salvage any shred of scientific integrity, it should give the money to an independent entity, like the National Academy of Sciences. The National Academy  would then disburse the money to scientific experts it selects. Anything less must be construed as BP's attempt to control the study of the catastrophe it caused in the Gulf.

There are already signs that BP is undermining Gulf research. From its refusal to allow outside experts to assess how much oil is erupting to its persistent denials of the existence of underwater oil plumes despite all the evidence, it is clear the company is obstructing science.

It could continue to do so in a variety of ways.

Biasing the Science by Deciding What Gets Studied: BP has selected a panel of scientists to oversee its research funds. But if BP is hand-picking the panel,  there is no guarantee of independence.

One of the most influential moments in scientific research comes at the start, when funders choose which projects to support. The people holding the purse strings get to decide what the important questions are--what should be investigated with what methods and what should be overlooked. A study assessing how many fish eggs died this spring may get funded, for instance, but one that looks at the long-terms impacts of egg mortality on bluefin tuna might not.

It is critical that we understand what the spill is doing to marine life and the economic vitality it supports. But if BP gets to outline the scope of scientific inquiry, we may not get the full picture we need. Or worse, we may get a biased one.

Creating a Battle of the Scientists: There are other complications with industry-driven science--some of which unfolded after the Exxon Valdez spill. Exxon paid for research and so did the government. The two camps became polarized. Rather than sharing data and discussing findings, the Exxon researchers tried to control information and became uncommunicative, even adversarial. The antagonism persisted for years after the government's damage assessment was settled in court.

BP has already refused to share information with outside experts. For weeks, the company blocked researchers from assessing how much oil was erupting from the well. For example, when the government assigned an independent team to measure the flow rate, BP initially sent the federal government low- resolution pictures of the well instead of the clearer images that would allow scientists to make a sound estimate of the flow rate.

This could be the beginning of an extended face off--one that has enormous implications for individual and government financial and legal claims against companies. Industry researchers assert their findings, and government researchers assert theirs. Industry lawyers play up the lack of consensus; they cultivate uncertainty and fuel a sense of doubt about the government's conclusions. They spark a battle of the scientists, and the data gets lost in the shuffle.

Hiring All the Experts Before the Government Does: Instead of polarizing the science, BP may choose another route to neutralize government findings: the company may spend so much money that it overwhelms independent research. It could hire most of the qualified labs, research firms, and university departments, and direct them in every step of the process: sampling methodology, data collection, data analysis, damage assessments, and remediation recommendations. And of course, it could choose to bury any unfavorable results, especially if it imposed limitations on what could be published.

This would grant BP control of the inquiry from beginning to end. And in a sense, it would replicate one of the more insidious dynamics that caused the spill: the company overwhelming the regulator.

It doesn't have to be this way. BP should take steps that will insulate scientific research from BP's influence--even while drawing on BP funds. The government should press for these steps, which are:

  1. The Research Money Should Be Controlled By an Independent Entity. Rather than having BP involved with deciding where the money goes, a truly independent panel should be in charge of oversight.
  2. Any BP Funded Research Must Not Supplant the Government's Research. I was alarmed when BP Spokesman John Curry said BP expects that the studies produced by its research fund will be used in the federal government's damage assessment. Under the Oil Pollution Act, the government is required to conduct a Natural Resource Damage Assessment. We need this process to be unsullied by the party with a vested interest in downplaying the damage it caused. Research done with BP funds must not supplant the government's own investigation.It is important to remember that the science and damages are inextricably linked. Inadequate or incomplete science will affect the recovery of both economic and environmental damages from BP.