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Environment & Science

Science chill after the BP spill: why lawsuits, lawmakers and journalists make researchers nervous

Crew members in the Gulf periodically need to take extraordinary safety precautions from the hydrocarbon fumes in the air. Sean Sylva, Chris Reddy, Rich Camilli, and Lt. Jarrett Parker (USCG) were getting ready to  deploy the autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) Sentry in the Gulf of Mexico.
Crew members in the Gulf periodically need to take extraordinary safety precautions from the hydrocarbon fumes in the air. Sean Sylva, Chris Reddy, Rich Camilli, and Lt. Jarrett Parker (USCG) were getting ready to deploy the autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) Sentry in the Gulf of Mexico.
Courtesy of Rich Camilli, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

An op-ed written by two Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute scientists in the Boston Globe this week is heating up a debate about how chilly legal scrutiny can be when it comes to ocean science.

Back in 2010, marine geochemist Chris Reddy and environmental engineer Richard Camilli pinged the plume of spilt oil in Gulf Coast waters with sonar. Remote-operated vehicles thousands of feet below the ocean’s surface helped tell them where the oil was. They analyzed the makeup of that subsurface plume and calculated an average flow rate of 57,000 barrels of oil a day, for a total release of 4.9 million barrels of oil.

That last part is the sticky wicket. Spilling oil in federal waters tends to yield fines, and in this case, quite large ones. The outcome of federal and scientific calculations is worth billions of dollars, and as a result, BP has been very interested in making Reddy, Camilli and other researchers show their work.

Now Reddy and Camilli write that they’ve handed over three thousand emails they call confidential, at the demand of BP, and under court order. They sure don’t like having to do it. What’s in there anyway?

In reviewing our private documents, BP will probably find e-mail correspondence showing that during the course of our analysis, we hit dead-ends; that we remained skeptical and pushed one another to analyze data from various perspectives; that we discovered weaknesses in our methods (if only to find ways to make them stronger); or that we modified our course, especially when we received new information that provided additional insight and caused us to re-examine hypotheses and methods.

Reddy and Camilli say they’re worried about their intellectual property (presumably around the methods they use to calculate oil flows), to which BP now has a deepwater sort of access.

Doesn’t sound so bad, writes Colorado University environmental studies professor Roger Pielke Jr. He doesn’t think Woods Hole’s intellectual property is really at risk. His view is it doesn’t matter who’s asking, or why; scientists should open their inboxes. “Asking for a special privilege in scientific communication is highly unlikely ever to be a successful strategy under U.S. law. Besides, good science, even when messy, does not need to be hidden from view,” he writes.

But Reddy and Camilli are also concerned about a cold spell for public conversations about science. “In future crises, scientists may censor or avoid deliberations, and more importantly, be reluctant to volunteer valuable expertise and technology that emergency responders don’t possess,” they conclude.

That concern isn’t new to post-Deepwater Horizon life, and in it, the Woods Hole guys aren’t alone. The liberty of information gathered in the gulf has been at risk since the Deepwater Horizon incident began. In 2010, Alabama Press-Register reporter Ben Raines obtained a copy of a contract BP offered to scientists at an Alabama college. The contract prohibited “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.”

BP’s legal strategy has also informed its attacks on the credibility of science in federal policy. The Macondo Well had only been plugged for a few months when BP started attacking the government, claiming that its estimates of spilled oil "appear biased toward the maximum amount of oil that could have been discharged, rather than the amount of oil most likely to have been discharged."

And while the company has funded independent, open research in the gulf after the spill, a look at BP’s own e-mails obtained by Greenpeace showed the company’s efforts to influence how the money it coughed up for spill-related research got spent.

Politics and public policy make scientific openness vulnerable too. As the Natural Resources Defense Council’s David Pettit tweeted to me over the weekend: “we know who writes the [Federal Rules of Civil Procedure], and it ain’t scientists.” Some of scientists’ concerns are the product of an oil company’s strategy for self-preservation--legal and otherwise. Some of them may be more directly attributable to the law itself.

Pettit’s among the environmental advocates who have complained that the federal government's handling of spill response has encouraged collaboration with the responsible parties. That’s designed to speed the process, but that may not leave enough room, they say, for public and academic input. The “quagmire of bureaucracy” about which scientists have complained is at least somewhat due to a legislative demand for transparency in how public funds are spent.

Scientists also point at the language and application of the Oil Pollution Act. Last year the Metcalf Institute for Marine & Environmental Reporting brought journalists (including me) and science educators to LUMCON, the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium building at the end of the road in Cocodrie, LA. Scientists there told us of frustration about the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process that has followed the spill. NRDA (pronounced “nerd-uh,” for the non-nerds out there) treats the Gulf of Mexico like a crime scene, they said. Preserving the evidence helps the government hold parties responsible. It also prevents researchers from having the fullest possible picture of what’s happening and what needs more scrutiny.

The point is that the Woods Hole scientists’ argument maybe isn’t best understood as a broadside against BP, but as a defense of their vision of the process by which they find things out. Since the spill, Reddy has also been vocal in asking media and the public to understand science the way he does: less as a linear story and more as a jigsaw puzzle, with new pieces showing up and trying to fall into place. It’s not surprising to see him demanding that from BP and the legal system too.