Our guest blogger is Kiley Kroh, Associate Director for Ocean Communications at the Center for American Progress.
This week’s Senate hearing on the state of the Natural Resource Damages Assessment (NRDA) process highlighted the long bureaucratic ordeal of determining ultimate liability for last year’s Deepwater Horizon catastrophe. In the several months since the well was capped, BP has maintained it is committed to staying in the Gulf “as long as it takes.” In April the oil giant offered $1 billion to fund early restoration projects and witnesses testified that as many as 14 projects would be selected to begin as early as the end of this month.
While many were quick to commend BP for offering this money without obligation, officials on the ground are expressing growing concern over the amount of influence the corporation is able to exert. Because they control the checkbook, BP has the authority to sign off on all activities conducted by NRDA, including studies of affected areas. Garrett Graves, chairman of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority of Louisiana, pointed out the “inherent conflict” this creates between the financing sources and government agencies who are trying to carry out the restoration efforts:
It is a modern-day case of Stockholm syndrome, whereby responders are dependent upon the financial resources of and have repeatedly shown signs of empathy toward the responsible parties who hold them financially captive to the detriment of the will and best interest of the public.
The damaging effects of BP’s influence over the restoration process are already showing themselves. For instance, Graves noted that the corporation has been able to move to “prematurely designate oiled areas as [requiring] ‘no further treatment.'” In other words, the party responsible for the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history now has the power to dictate the course of restoration efforts.
Graves went on to articulate that it is almost impossible for government agencies to compete with the “armies of attorneys, marketing firms, PR campaigns, lobbyists, scientists and other consultants.” In the wake of the spill, the oil giant moved to quickly buy the silence of as many Gulf Coast scientists as they could, while simultaneously spending millions of dollars on flashy public-relations campaigns designed to perpetuate their message that the Gulf region was back to pre-spill conditions.
And BP’s involvement in determining their own liability doesn’t end there. Documents obtained by Greenpeace under the Freedom of Information Act show BP officials openly discussing how to influence the work of scientists supported by a $500 million fund the company created last year to fund what it claimed would be “independent research.”
The implications of BP dictating or even influencing scientific assessment and the appropriation of restoration funds go far beyond academic interest into the impact of the spill. The oil giant faces billions of dollars in fines and penalties, and possible criminal charges arising from the disaster and they’ve already disputed the government’s estimate that 4.9 million barrels of oil spewed into the Gulf, claiming they believe it could be half that amount. While the NRDA process is likely to drag on for several months, it is impossible to imagine how the final outcome could in any way be just if the accused is also a member of the jury.