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BP launches effort to control scientific research of oil disaster

By Joe Romm on July 18, 2010 at 2:14 pm

"BP launches effort to control scientific research of oil disaster"

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bpclosedForeign oil giant BP is on a spending spree, buying Gulf Coast scientists for its private contractor army.   TP’s Brad Johnson has the story.

Scientists from Louisiana State University, Mississippi State University and Texas A&M have “signed contracts with BP to work on their behalf in the Natural Resources Damage Assessment (NRDA) process” that determines how much ecological damage the Gulf of Mexico region is suffering from BP’s toxic black tide. The contract, the Mobile Press-Register has learned, “prohibits the scientists from publishing their research, sharing it with other scientists or speaking about the data that they collect for at least the next three years.”

The contract, the Mobile Press-Register has learned, “prohibits the scientists from publishing their research, sharing it with other scientists or speaking about the data that they collect for at least the next three years.” Bob Shipp, head of marine sciences at the University of South Alabama “” whose entire department BP wished to hire “” refused to sign over their integrity to the corporate criminal:

We told them there was no way we would agree to any kind of restrictions on the data we collect. It was pretty clear we wouldn’t be hearing from them again after that. We didn’t like the perception of the university representing BP in any fashion.

The lucrative $250-an-hour deal “buys silence,” said Robert Wiygul, an Ocean Springs environmental lawyer who analyzed the contract. “It makes me feel like they were more interested in making sure we couldn’t testify against them than in having us testify for them,” said George Crozier, head of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, who was approached by BP.

These efforts to buy silence and cooperation come in addition to the $500 million Gulf Research Initiative, a Tobacco Institute-like program managed by a panel picked by BP to disburse scientific research grants in the coming years. Louisiana State University, University of Florida’s Florida Institute of Oceanography, and Mississippi State University’s Northern Gulf Institute have already accepted $10 million each.

In contrast, the federal government has failed to coordinate the massive research program needed to save the Gulf, preventing academic researchers from observing the data collected by the NRDA teams that include both government and BP contractors. “The science is already suffering,” Richard Shaw, associate dean of Louisiana State University’s School of the Coast and Environment said. “The government needs to come through with funding for the universities. They are letting go of the most important group of scientists, the ones who study the Gulf.” (HT: The Independent Weekly)

This is a Think Progress cross-post.

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34 Responses to BP launches effort to control scientific research of oil disaster

  1. homunq says:

    Congress could easily* pass a law that all research data on the environmental effects of [multi-state?] disasters must be publicly available as soon as it is processed. The law should be written to invalidate only the gag rules in these contracts, leaving BP’s research money contractually committed.

    The downside would be that such a law would “punish” the honest departments which turned down this hush money. But that could be partially corrected by a clause which said federal money for the impact research covered by the law would not go to the unscrupulous who were taking the would-have-been-hush money.

    *Easily, that is, if filibuster reform comes first. If not, Congress can’t do anything, so forget it.

  2. BobSmith says:

    Wow. CNN, MSNBC, and any other news reporting agency should do a story on this.

    I really think the story needs a lot of exposure.

  3. dorveK says:

    We need to know the names of those that take the money, and then boycott their “researches”. Forever.

  4. BobSmith says:

    dorveK – In case you aren’t being sarcastic: they are suppose to publish unbiased and clear data to be used for the public. Their research really can’t be boycotted, unless you mean counting it as worthless.

  5. Bob G says:

    Hey, Joe — Check out Nicholas Kristof’s op-ed in the NY Times today, entitled: Our Beaker is Boiling.
    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/18/opinion/18kristof.html?emc=eta1

  6. Fred Teal says:

    Joe:
    The sentence at the end of Para. 2 is repeated.

  7. BillD says:

    I don’t understand this purported BP strategy. Surely they can’t expect to buy off all scientists to shut down scientific reports. If the scientist they are paying are not reporting their results, the only the non BP scientists would be heard.

  8. Chad says:

    The government needs to step up to the plate and fund any relevant science immediately. It should then stick BP with the bill, with a 50% executive management fee tacked on for good measure.

    Frankly, we should be doing this across the board. How much time has the president spent on this matter? I am not joking when I say his time could easily run a million dollars an hour. Bill BP. Tack on a fat profit. What about those “volunteers” cleaning up fouled birds and turtles? They happen to have some pretty elite skills that are highly valuble right now, at least as valuble as the flailing execs at BP. Why aren’t they billing BP as well?

  9. Robert says:

    I have a tiny little issue with the first 4 words of the post! BP is not “owned” by any country and in that sense any citizen of any country could rightly say it is a “Foreign oil giant”.

    http://hubpages.com/hub/British-Petroleum-Ownership-Who-Owns-BP

    In fact, US citizens and institutions own 39% of the company, making the US equal first majority shareholder with the UK (you aren’t going to quibble about 1% are you!?)

  10. Raul M. says:

    beyond pollution’s law might need revision. Certainly,
    scientific study would need codifying as it may be to
    complex to be understood. Still I don’t quite understand
    how Mockingbird came up with his story. I thought the
    science study was easier to understand than Mockingbirds
    version. Only Mockingbird didn’t have exclusive rights
    to the science study and so the science was available.
    Course this is no court of law and so Mockingbirds
    version was allowed. So beyond pollutions law should be
    changed as we don’t care to lose the home of the brave.

  11. PSU Grad says:

    I’m an alumnus of one of those schools (in addition to PSU) and am done donating money. Next time they call, I’ll ask for a supervisor (no sense picking on a student who’s actually making the calls), and let them know calmly and clearly why my donations are cut off.

    On a cheerier note, CNN.com is giving prominent headline placement to NOAA’s release of June climate date:

    http://www.cnn.com/2010/WORLD/europe/07/18/global.weather.june/index.html?hpt=T1

    (CNN) — Last month was the warmest June on record worldwide, according to a report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

    Warmer-than-average conditions were present across nearly all continents, including much of the United States, according to the organization’s State of the Climate report, released Friday.

  12. libhomo says:

    Just when I thought there couldn’t possibly be another reason to hate British Petroleum….

  13. Will Koroluk says:

    Hey folks. Read Merchants of Doubt, by Naomi Oreskes. Joe posted an excellent review just a few days ago. The tactics she outlines in her book still work, and BP is going to use them as much as possible. They don’t have to buy every scientist–just enough to sow the seeds of doubt.

  14. Raul M. says:

    Do you mean that they could consolidate the scientists
    work without the scientists being able to say that the
    consolidation is accurate or truly representative of
    said work. That the release of rights would in and of
    itself be verification. That the scientists wouldn’t have
    knowledge of who the other scientists in the group were
    when the consolidation was presented. That not only the
    scientists wouldn’t be allowed to follow the process
    thread. That slight of hand could be inadvertently
    inherent to the process. It could be a long list of
    questions that could be embarrassing for a scientist
    to explain to friends and family.

  15. Andy says:

    The science of pollution damage assessment is extremely difficult. You’re trying to pin changes observed in a massively variable natural system to a specific event. Kind of like trying to attribute a single bad storm to the affects of global warming. Unfortunately I’ve “sat” and observed way too many of these processes. It really does boil down to dueling scientists arguing about whose fault observed decreases in populations or mortality events were. Think of the recent Avandia controversy but way, way more complicated.

    Much of our university research is funded by corporations seemingly at odd with their stated mission. For example: drug safety research funded by pharmaceutical companies, pesticide safety research funded by agribusiness companies, endangered species research funded by development companies and oil spill damage research funded by oil companies.

    But the money has to come from somewhere and our state and federal governments supply diddly for environmental research.

    It’s a crappy situation all around.

  16. Bob Smith says:

    BP is going to save the planet according to energy Secretary Chu. Joe was involved with them heavily along with Enron. This is now surfacing.

  17. Rick Covert says:

    Off topic but I found the film “The Age of Stupid” on Hulu. It stars Pete Postlethwaite and it was definitely worth watching.

  18. Prokaryotes says:

    The Age of Stupid – Trailer http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DZjsJdokC0s

    The movie also covers the human & ecological disaster of oil extraction in nigeria.

  19. tee are says:

    Government should watch that movie to make a better environment

  20. Robert says:

    I wonder what Nigerian citizens think of foreign oil companies?

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/may/30/oil-spills-nigeria-niger-delta-shell

  21. Mitch says:

    Something’s wrong here–no one funds university research with a consultancy. I do know that BP was rumored to be committing $500m for research on the environmental damage, but it was to be awarded like typical grants–i.e., to the universities in the name of PI’s and following university rules, not as individual awards to researchers without going through the universities. I would check your sources.

  22. Leland Palmer says:

    What we really have to fear from the oil spill are the volatiles, IMO.

    Benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and the xylenes are very bad, and benzene is a carcinogen.

    Methylene chloride is not good for you, either. It is very slightly soluble in water. It has a nasty tendency to penetrate the skin. Going to the beach may not be such a good idea.

    Hydrogen sulfide is toxic, too.

    Levels of these compounds are being detected in ppm levels in the air and water by EPA monitoring stations in the gulf. A news crew from a local television station in Alabama has done its own testing, and has found levels of some of these things at hundreds of ppm in the water and soil of the beaches.

    Keep in mind that entire populations of people will be exposed to ppm levels of these compounds for a long period of time. These compounds are in the sea water and on the beaches already. They may get into the food chain, and be found at elevated levels in gulf seafood for a while, although benzene may be metabolized rapidly, I don’t know. Anyway, if entire populations of people are exposed via the air and water, it doesn’t take much increase in individual risk to result in large numbers of cancers or cases of leukemia.

    Likely the 20 billion cleanup fund will be exhausted before many of these cancers, some of which are characteristic to benzene exposure, for example, show up in the general population.

    Gasoline that we buy at the pump has had the aromatic (ring) compounds like benzene “cracked” into less toxic chain compounds. The raw gasoline coming out of the Macondo well has never seen the inside of an oil refinery, of course.

    Likely what BP is doing is trying to minimize the amount of testing done to document volatile compound levels in the air and sea water, and be able to wiggle out of responsibility when these characteristic cancers and genetic damage show up years from now.

    I don’t want to over-estimate this risk. But it is a risk that should be investigated by scientists, free to publish their findings, not by BP executives or lawyers.

  23. Prokaryotes says:

    Robert, #22 “I wonder what Nigerian citizens think of foreign oil companies?”

    So far nobody freaking cares. If there would be a slight care – the companies involved would be forced to clean up there freaking pollution, which IS affecting worldwide – water ways and atmosphere.

    Urgent aid is needed to avert a catastrophe in west Africa, reports Alastair Stewart
    http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/millions-face-starvation-as-niger-prays-in-vain-for-rain-2022190.html

  24. Prokaryotes says:

    Dust and Hydrogen Sulfide along the Namibian Coast
    http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/IOTD/view.php?id=44340

  25. Prokaryotes says:

    All these food programs could be financed for with carbon negative action – with the sahel green belt program added biochar technology.
    http://www.acp-eucourier.info/A-green-belt-across-the-S.793.0.html

    But people rather wait till we hit a point of no return and millions of people “climate refugees” invade industrial countries – because the situation becomes unbearable.

  26. Prokaryotes says:

    Burn Locally, Crash Globally

    Even if we achieved zero emissions tomorrow, it would take centuries for the excess CO2 to be absorbed by land and ocean—and even after a thousand years, about 20% would still remain up in the air. [4]

    Everything changed about 2003 when it became clear that the excess CO2 absorbed by the ocean acidifies the ocean surface, making big changes in the ocean ecology, striking at the bottom of the food chain [5]. So even if we stopped the rise in global mean temperature, we’d still be in big trouble from this second effect of excess CO2.
    http://westcoastclimateequity.org/2010/01/07/cleaning-up-the-excess-co2/

  27. Prokaryotes says:

    From above link

    For example, global drought used to affect 14% of land surface at any one time, counting only the two most extreme categories of drought [7]. Then in 1982, it doubled. It stayed near double until 1997, when it jumped up to triple. (It came back down to double in 2005, also suddenly). These abrupt steps were all surprises to the climate scientists. There was nothing in the models to predict such a fast flip.

    Physicians cannot predict heart attacks either—but they can do a good job of preventing many of them. And what might prevent abrupt climate shifts? We have to stop pushing the natural system so hard and so fast [8] and that means getting rid of the excess CO2 before another flip can happen.

    That makes it three big reasons for cleaning up the excess CO2:

    1. Overheating,
    2. Acidification, and
    3. Abrupt climate shifts.

    While the time scale for the first two is gradual over decades, that for the third is anytime—say, next year. Any framing of climate choices ignoring the second and third threat is a dangerous oversimplification.

  28. Prokaryotes says:

    Nigeria’s Oil Spill and the Missing White Girl
    http://www.theroot.com/views/nigerias-oil-spill-and-missing-white-girl

  29. Chris Winter says:

    BillD wrote: “don’t understand this purported BP strategy. Surely they can’t expect to buy off all scientists to shut down scientific reports. If the scientist they are paying are not reporting their results, then only the non-BP scientists would be heard.”

    Consider. If BP controls the publication of a major portion of the research on Gulf pollution for the next three years, it can say whatever it wants in press releases about that research. This does not necessarily involve lying; merely emphasizing uncertainty will probably do. And while it wouldn’t control all the scientists of the region, it would control some influential ones. That formula has delayed action in every environmental dispute since Rachel Carson’s day. Delay is the goal.

    There’s a logistical angle, too: the local universities have the best access to the Gulf, have experts on the local flora and fauna, know the territory best. If BP can corral them, it corrals the most effective research teams.

    Also, as Leland Palmer pointed out, after three years most of the volatiles will have dissipated or broken down, so finding damage they caused will be much more difficult.
    —-
    I wonder if Mike Papantonio’s legal team has any resources to look into this.

    http://www.facebook.com/pages/Mike-Papantonio/138729772620

  30. James Newberry says:

    When money controls or unduly influences the public agenda that is called plutocracy, and our government is implicated. If this stands, then the administration is clearly condoning corporate control of knowledge.

  31. Raul M. says:

    There is precedent to the Universities’ situation
    if they take the science contract with beyond pollution
    for science data, does beyond pollution get to say they
    have exclusive rights and that the University provides
    the legal services and the monies for legal services?
    What is the way to say externalization of oil costs
    to the public?

  32. Maarten says:

    ClimateGate 2.0 in the making…