Tuesday, July 13, 2010

BP's questionable practices with data

There probably are legitimate criticisms of some aspect of the federal government's response to the BP oil disaster. This article gives a general rundown on the response effort so far: Margaret Talev and Marisa Taylor, Despite new toughness, Obama faces hurdles in spill McClatchy Newspapers 07/12/2010. It doesn't analyze some of the widespread but false talking points that have been flying around, like the bogus claim that Jones Act has made the US turn down assistance from other countries.

One of the criticisms of the administration's response as well as of BP's has been the lack of a more urgent, concerted effort to do scientific research on just what is happening out there in the Gulf. But that is probably to a large extent just a part of the administration's excessive willingness to defer to BP in the response effort. And it's not as though there isn't a considerable amount of scientific evidence being assembled.

The problem, as Dan Froomkin points out in NOAA Hoarding Key Data On Oil Spill Damage Huffington Post 07/13/10, is that government officials are sharing that data with BP, but much of it that could be useful to marine researchers is not being released to the public:

Meanwhile, the government is working alongside BP, which, as [Ira] Leifer put it, "may want areas of non-knowledge."

Indeed, BP, which faces a potentially enormous per-barrel fine, has no incentive to measure the amount of oil leaked with any precision whatsoever. Nor does it have any desire for the public to become too acutely aware of the vast amounts of oil it has been able to keep largely hidden beneath the surface, in part due to its controversial use of dispersants.

Rick Steiner, a marine conservationist who studied the effect of the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, sees NOAA's behavior as part of a larger trend. "It's my sense that all federal agencies are withholding information at this point on this spill, and this includes Coast Guard, EPA, Department of Interior, and certainly NOAA," he told the Huffington Post.

"And there's an overwhelming public interest that the public knows everything that the government knows about this at this point. So we need a new paradigm for how to handle public information in these sorts of disasters, and there's no better place to start than right here right now."

This fits uncomfortably well with other stories that present direct and circumstantial evidence that BP's oil disaster response has been overwhelming directed toward shielding the company from financial and legal consequences, even when that meant shorting the cleanup effort. See, for intance:

Allison Kilkenny, Allegations Emerge BP Is Dumping Sand To Cover Oil Huffington Post 07/01/2010

Ryan Knutson, Blast at BP Texas Refinery in '05 Foreshadowed Gulf Disaster ProPublica/Frontline 07/02/2010

Ryan Knutson, BP Texas Refinery Had Huge Toxic Release Just Before Gulf Blowout ProPublica/Frontline 07/02/2010

In connection with ProPublica's BP exposes, Texas police apparently abused anti-terrorism laws to hassle and intimidate a freelance photographer on assignment for ProPublica: Stephen Engelberg, Photographer Detained Briefly by BP and Local Police ProPublica/Frontline 07/02/2010.

Marc Caputo also gives a hint of why the scientific information being accumulated on the disaster may be restricted in the interests of BP in BP wasted no time preparing for oil spill lawsuits McClatchy Newspapers 07/03/2010:

BP swiftly signed up experts who otherwise would work for plaintiffs. It shopped for top-notch legal teams. It presented volunteers, fishermen and potential workers with waivers, hoping they would sign away some of their right to sue.

Recently, BP announced it would create a $20 billion victim-assistance fund, which could reduce court challenges.

Robert J. McKee, an attorney with the Fort Lauderdale firm of Krupnick Campbell Malone, was surprised by how quickly BP hired scientists and laboratories specializing in the collection and analysis of air, sea, marsh and beach samples — evidence that's crucial to proving damages in pollution cases. [my emphasis]

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