Lack of Transparency Afflicts Oil Spill Response

Adding insult to injury, the worst oil spill in U.S. history has been plagued by a lack of transparency that is hindering the response to the disaster and may impact responses to future spills. Reports of restrictions on media access to the spill site, the delayed disclosure of information on dispersants, and frustrations with BP's overall lack of transparency have confounded efforts to hold the company and government agencies accountable.

Both the administration's and the oil industry's response to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico have drawn criticism over the slow pace of release of information to the public. As congressional investigations and continued public outcry bring attention to the lack of openness, the federal response seems to be slowly moving toward greater transparency.

Confusion about Size of Spill

In the first weeks of the catastrophe, conflicting, inaccurate, or missing information regarding the amount of oil leaking into the Gulf of Mexico created confusion. Despite initial, unofficial estimates of up to 64,000 to 110,000 barrels of oil per day, the U.S. government and BP initially estimated up to 1,000 barrels of oil per day were leaking from the crippled Deepwater Horizon rig. Later, relying on estimates from BP, federal officials raised the estimate to 5,000 barrels per day. Weeks later, the interagency Flow Rate Technical Group, after analyzing data and reviewing undersea video footage of the leak, estimated a range of 11,000 to 25,000 barrels per day. On June 10, another revised estimate placed the range at 25,000 to 30,000 barrels of oil a day.

The task of quantifying the amount of oil gushing out of the broken pipe was made more difficult by BP's delay in providing scientists a high-definition video of the leak for computer analysis, as well as by the company's resistance to permit a direct measurement of the flow rate. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the scientific agency that produced the government's 5,000 barrel-per-day estimate, refused to provide more detailed information on the mathematics behind its figure.

Getting a clear, accurate understanding of the flow rate of the oil leaking from the destroyed wellhead is important for numerous reasons. Understanding the ecological impacts of the spill depends on a clear picture of the size of the leak. Planning for the prevention of and response to future deep-sea oil spills will be also informed by clear understanding of the characteristics of the Deepwater Horizon spill. In addition to learning about the root causes of the accident, the public and government regulators will need to know the consequences in order to plan for the next catastrophe.

Moreover, the amount of fines faced by BP will likely depend on the amount of oil released into the Gulf. In an interview with The New York Times, Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA), whose House Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment is investigating the spill, noted that under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, companies face fines of up to $1,000 per barrel spilled, or up to $3,000 per barrel in the case of gross negligence. The need for accurate figures will have a major impact on potential fines. "I think they were hoping they could fix it before they would be forced to allow the world to measure it," Markey said.

Markey's subcommittee also compelled BP to release underwater video footage of the leak. In response to the company's lack of transparency during the spill response, Markey stated, "We cannot trust BP. It's clear they have been hiding the actual consequences of this spill."

Media Access Restricted

According to numerous reports, BP and its contractors have turned journalists and photographers away from impacted sites, and local law enforcement, the Coast Guard, and other government officials have also restricted media access to important areas affected by the spill. In addition, BP initially directed its cleanup workers to not speak with the media. The company has since rescinded that order.

Many reporters trying to cover the spill complain that access, even when granted, is strictly controlled by BP or BP contractors, frequently with the complicity of local or federal government officials. Markey commented on BP's role in restricting media access, "I think they've been trying to limit access. It is a company that was not used to transparency. It was not used to having public scrutiny of what it did."

On June 6, Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, the National Incident Commander, announced that he had issued orders granting the media "uninhibited access" to cleanup efforts, except if the access is "a security or safety problem." According to a BP spokesman, "From the beginning, we have tried to provide information, data and access to government officials, the news media and the public. But we always are striving to enhance and improve our lines of communication and our responsiveness."

Secret Chemicals

More than 1,262,000 gallons of dispersants have been used on the oil spill to date. Numerous concerns have been raised about the long-term consequences of using such unprecedented quantities of dispersants and the unique conditions of their application under thousands of feet of water. Scientists and environmentalists had been calling for the disclosure of the ingredients to allow the public to analyze the possible human and ecological health impacts and what worker safety measures are needed. The chemical ingredients in the dispersants were kept secret until June 4, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) quietly disclosed the ingredients on the agency's website.

The chemical components had been kept secret because the manufacturer had claimed the information was confidential business information, and therefore, it qualified for special protections by the EPA. Open government advocates had asserted that because of the clear emergency situation and the potential health and safety consequences of keeping the information secret, the EPA had the legal authority to disclose the chemical identities. EPA disputes that it had such authority, saying that the agency is subject to possible criminal penalties in the event of unauthorized disclosure of confidential business information, even in a situation as dire as the Gulf disaster.

Reflecting the concerns about the toxicity of the dispersants, EPA ordered BP to analyze alternative dispersants that were less toxic than the products the company had been using. BP, with help from the Coast Guard, conducted toxicity tests of alternative dispersants, but the results were neither released nor shared with the EPA. The company refused to select an alternative, claiming its current product was the most appropriate for the situation. EPA is now conducting its own toxicity tests of dispersants.

The data gaps related to the use of dispersants is emblematic of a chemicals policy that allows chemicals into commerce before the public has an adequate understanding of the chemical's hazard. One researcher who has studied dispersants used on oil spills lamented, "There's such limited funding out there to do this research. Would I would have liked to screen six dispersants? Yes, but there wasn't money."

Federal Transparency Efforts

Despite the numerous concerns raised about the quantity, quality, and access to information about the spill, there have been several government efforts to provide the public with data. The EPA created its own website providing water and air quality monitoring data, along with information on the agency's activities in the Gulf. The interagency command center, known as the Unified Command, provides extensive online updates on cleanup activities, as well as live video feeds from underwater remotely operated vehicles and telephone numbers for incident reports from the public.

After several weeks of inadequate transparency from BP, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano called on BP to release more data about the spill and increase the company's transparency.

On June 14, NOAA launched a new website that provides information about the BP oil spill via an interactive map. Described as a "a one-stop shop for detailed near-real-time information about the response to the Deepwater Horizon BP oil spill," the interactive map includes data from DHS, the Coast Guard, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, EPA, NASA, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the Gulf states.

The Obama administration is also calling for a high level of transparency in the awarding and disbursement of public claims against BP. Adm. Allen of the Coast Guard recently wrote to BP chief executive Tony Hayward demanding greater disclosure of compensation payments. Allen wrote, "We need complete, ongoing transparency into BP's claims process including detailed information on how claims are being evaluated, how payment amounts are being calculated, and how quickly claims are being processed."

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