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Scientists say BP used courts to attack oil spill research

September 27, 2012|By Monte Morin
  • The Deepwater Horizon rig burns in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010.
The Deepwater Horizon rig burns in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010. (European Pressphoto Agency )

Scientists are accusing the BP oil company of using the U.S. courts to attack their calculations of how much oil leaked into the Gulf of Mexico during the Deepwater Horizon drilling disaster.

In a paper published Thursday in the journal Science, researchers at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, in Massachusetts, charge that BP and other corporations damage scientific research when they subpoena documents and correspondence that lead to study conclusions. Richard Camilli, an ocean physicist, engineer and lead author of the paper, claimed that BP was intent on using such correspondence to raise doubts about the spill calculations.

Camilli and his colleagues called for legislation that would shield researchers from litigants who were “seeking to silence scientific inquiry or retribution for publishing independent research findings.”

A federal court in New Orleans is considering a proposed $7.8-billion settlement between BP and Gulf Coast victims of the 2010 oil spill. In preparation for a separate suit brought by the U.S. government, BP sought and obtained thousands of the scientists’ e-mails, as well as other documents, despite the insistence of scientists that the materials were confidential.

Asked to comment on the Science paper, a BP spokesman in Houston offered a prepared statement:

“BP is a company of scientists and engineers, and the subpoena served on Woods Hole is in no way an attack on science. The information and documents that BP sought to be produced by Woods Hole are typical of information and documents regularly sought in civil litigation, and the court found, among other things, that there was a demonstrated need for the materials because there was no other source for them. The arguments made by Woods Hole to somehow exempt its materials from discovery were considered and rejected by the court.”

The authors of the paper wrote that preliminary correspondence and research should not be revealed in court litigation because it was incomplete.

“As is common in scientific research, our analysis evolved, gaining precision over time. Our initial calculations drew from a small subset of data and used simplifying approximations to enable quick estimation under a tight deadline,” authors wrote.

The BP litigation was not the first time a corporation had sought such preliminary scientific research, the authors said. In 1980, Dow Chemical Co. subpoenaed documents involving a University of Wisconsin study of the defoliant Agent Orange. It failed to obtain them, however.

A decade later, tobacco firms subpoenaed data and documents involving Mount Sinai Medical School research into lung cancer. They obtained the materials with federal court backing.

And in 2011, Bayer Pharmaceuticals sought peer reviewed comments from a published study. A federal court denied that request, however, noting that peer reviews were conducted anonymously to encourage candid assessment of study results and methodology.

The authors said that because they are not parties in the ongoing BP litigation, they have no representation in court and therefore do not have the ability to defend their findings.

“Although it is tempting for researchers to seek the protections used by journalists for confidential sources and material, journalistic privilege claims are tenuous. Unlike attorney-client and doctor-patient privilege, federal legislation for journalistic privilege is absent,” authors wrote.

In an opinion article published in the Boston Globe in June, Camilli and Woods Hole geochemist Christopher Reddy argued that deliberation was critical to the scientific process, and that in this age e-mail was the primary medium for that.

“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 reexamine hypotheses and methods.”

The authors wrote, however, that such constructive criticism does not diminish the strength of their conclusions.

The Woods Hole scientists had calculated an average flow rate of 57,000 barrels of oil per day, and they estimated the total release to be approximately 4.9 million barrels.

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