ProPublica

Journalism in the Public Interest

While BP’s Oil Gushes, Company Keeps Information to a Trickle

BP hasn't yet been able to stop the flow of oil, but it's been more successful at controlling the information coming out about the Gulf disaster. 

McClatchy reported on Tuesday that BP has been withholding the results of "tests on the extent of workers' exposure to evaporating oil or from the burning crude over the Gulf." The data is important to determining whether current conditions are safe for workers in the Gulf, researchers told McClatchy. BP said it's sharing the data with "legitimate interested parties," but would not release it publicly:

"Why would one do it? Any parties with a legitimate interest can have access to it," BP spokesman Toby Odone told McClatchy.

That's not the only instance in which the company has restricted the media's access to information. CBS News reported that one of its news teams was filming on an oil-tarred public beach when Coast Guard officials and BP contractors came by and threatened them with arrest. The incident was caught on tape.

"This is BP's rules," one man can be heard yelling at the CBS crew. "It's not ours."

BP: "No" to Better Data on Oil Flow

As we've pointed out, BP has maintained there's "just no way to measure" the oil flow, even as the company turned down scientists offering to measure it with techniques that could yield a more accurate result. A BP spokesman told The New York Times that calculating the flow is "not relevant to the response effort."

Last week, BP released a 30-second video clip of the spill following pressure from the White House and the media, according to ABC News. This week, after lawmakers wrote in requesting more information, BP released four more video clips.

Based on the footage, scientists have calculated what are believed to be more accurate (and much higher) estimates of the extent of the spill, compared with the 5,000-barrels-a-day figure that both BP and the federal government are currently using in public.

In a written response to letters from Sen. Bill Nelson and Sen. Barbara Boxer requesting more video footage, a BP official said the company is "committed to providing the government and the public with as much information as possible (pdf) regarding the ongoing efforts to contain the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico."

Federal Agencies Just Go With the Flow

Despite scientists' growing skepticism about the accuracy of those measurements, the government has stuck with its 5,000-barrels-a-day estimate. It has not pressed BP for better measurements, and when asked about video footage, has deferred to BP. From ABC News:

Asked if the White House could compel the company to release the video, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Tuesday the decision rests with BP, which controls the tapes. When Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-California) pressed a top BP executive on the question during congressional hearings Tuesday, she was told the videos are under joint government and industry control at the incident command center in New Orleans, where they are teaming up to orchestrate the spill response.

McClatchy reported that when the Occupational Safety and Health Administration was asked about air sampling data that BP has shared with the agency, an OSHA official again deferred to BP:

"It is not ours to publish," said Dean Wingo, OSHA's assistant regional administrator who oversees Louisiana. "We are working with (BP) and encouraging them to post the data so that it is publicly available."

In one case, a federal agency leveled pointed criticism at the press for reporting on the spread of oil. After independent scientists discovered giant plumes of dispersed oil forming in the deep waters of the Gulf and heading toward the Gulf loop current, a spokeswoman from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration criticized media reports about plumes, calling them "misleading, premature and, in some cases, inaccurate."

According to the Huffington Post's Dan Froomkin, NOAA--the agency whose job it is to monitor and keep data on the oceans--"currently does not have a single research vessel taking measurements below."

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said on Tuesday, however, that the government is preparing new estimates on the flow of oil. We've called NOAA to ask about the agency's 5,000-barrels-a-day estimate and the undersea plumes, but have not yet received a response.

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