If Only Information Flowed as Freely as Oil
"Deep Spill 2" sounds like a sequel to a Hollywood thriller.
Unfortunately, it is more of a reality show. "Deep Spill 2" is the name of an ambitious series of proposed scientific experiments that should be happening right now. Scientists from around the globe are ready, literally, to dive in to understand what is happening with the oil and gas that are spewing into the Gulf of Mexico with the force of a volcano.
There is one problem, though: BP won't let them.
Ira Leifer is a scientist on the government-appointed Flow Rate Technical Group and a researcher in the Marine Science Institute at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He organized a team of scientists to develop intensive study of the Deepwater Horizon oil gusher, since so little is known about how oil and gas behave underwater, especially at the depths and temperatures one mile below the surface. The group of scientists presented the plan to BP, which ignored them, then to Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Markey wrote to BP on June 10:
"My understanding is that BP has not yet responded to Dr. Leifer's request to make direct flow measurement. ... I request that you provide whatever budget and ROV [robotic vehicle] access is needed to allow these scientists to deploy their measurement activities."
A month later, Dr. Leifer told me: "We have heard nothing from BP. ... Other scientists I know who are doing and trying to do research find themselves blocked at every turn from actually learning what we need to know so we can address this spill safely."
Ten years ago, scientists conducted "Deep Spill 1," a limited, 750-barrel controlled release off the coast of Norway, to study deep-sea oil spill phenomena. The lack of scientific knowledge of deep-water oil disasters allows BP officials like Tony Hayward to pronounce, as he did in late May, that "The oil is on the surface. ... There aren't any plumes."
So, while BP scientists, executives and public relations experts produce sound bites with their own fake "news teams," the world's leading experts are being shut out by BP itself.
Also shut out in the BP Gulf disaster are the media. The Coast Guard has announced new rules keeping the public, including photographers and reporters covering the spill, from coming within 65 feet of any response vessels or booms on the water or on beaches. Violators could face a fine of up to $40,000 and felony charges. In order to get within the 65-foot limit, media must get direct permission from the Coast Guard captain of the Port of New Orleans.
The 65-foot limit follows the rule requiring overhead flights with media to stay above 3,000 feet. Just like the Bush administration barring photographs of flag-draped coffins, the Obama administration seems to be colluding with BP to limit the images of the disaster. With current rules, and with photographers potentially facing felony charges, you can expect far fewer photos and videos of oil-soaked pelicans and dying sea turtles. You probably likely see fewer overhead close-ups showing how woefully inadequate the cleanup is, as 4 million gallons of oil jet into the Gulf every day.
Stories of denial of media access accumulate like tar balls on the beach (which have now made their way into Louisiana's Lake Pontchartrain and to beaches in Texas). "PBS NewsHour" reporters were repeatedly denied access to a Department of Health and Human Services "National Disaster Medical System" trailer, ringed with barbed wire. A "CBS Evening News" crew on a boat was accosted by another boat with five BP contractors and two U.S. Coast Guard members, and denied access to an oil-drenched beach.
Dr. Leifer sees reporting as an essential part of the overall process:
"Reporters having access is part of the learning process as a society so that when there are accidents in the future, we actually can respond intelligently and not with a lot of unknown assumptions."
If only BP and the federal government allowed information to flow as freely as the oil, we might well be on the road to dealing with this catastrophe.
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.
© 2010 Amy Goodman