By Andrew Hough
BP has been accused of “buying” the silence of some of the world’s leading scientists and academics to help build its legal defence against litigation after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
Researchers hired by the oil giant were reportedly asked to sign “restrictive” contracts for work designed to protect the company from more than 300 lawsuits in the wake of the slick.
BP is facing the lawsuits after the oil spill destroyed the livelihoods of many people along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico.
It was claimed that contained within the contracts were clauses restricting scientists from publishing any academic research undertaken for the oil giant, sharing them with other researchers or even talking about them for as long as three years.
Prof Cary Nelson, the head of the American Association of Professors, accused the oil giant of making “hugely destructive” decisions.
Prof Cary, whose organisation aims to protect “academic freedom”, said the clauses contained in contracts sent to dozens of scientists in America were “a serious restraint in the midst of an ongoing crisis”.
The oil giant admitted on Friday that it had hired more than a dozen scientists “with expertise in the resources of the Gulf of Mexico”.
But while admitting it had asked the experts to treat information from BP lawyers as “confidential” it denied placing “restrictions” on academics speaking about scientific data.
It was another blow to the oil giant in a week when it was hit with a string of bad news including a tropical storm forcing an evacuation of deep sea engineers and rows over the doctoring of pictures and the release of the Lockerbie bomber.
According to a copy of a contract offered to scientists by BP, obtained by the BBC and newspapers in America, scientists could not discuss their data for at least three years or until the government gave final approval to its restoration plan for the Gulf.
It also stated scientists may only perform research for other agencies as long as it did not conflict with the work commissioned by BP and could only take instructions from lawyers offering the contracts or other in-house counsel at the company.
American newspaper reports also claimed that BP attempted to hire the entire marine sciences department at southern US university.
Bob Shipp, head of marine sciences at the University of South Alabama, who was offered one of the contracts, said BP wanted his whole department.
He said that after he stipulated that his team would have complete academic freedom he never heard from BP’s lawyers again.
“We told them there was no way we would agree to any kind of restrictions on the data we collect. It was pretty clear we wouldn’t be hearing from them again after that,” told the Press-Register newspaper in Mobile, Alabama.
“We didn’t like the perception of the university representing BP in any fashion.”
The university declined to comment citing confidentiality restrictions the company sought on any research.
Prof Nelson, the head of English and Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois, warned BP’s actions to protect its corporate reputation and from legal challenges was “hugely destructive”.
“This is really one huge corporation trying to buy faculty silence in a comprehensive way,” he told the BBC.
“Our ability to evaluate the disaster and write public policy and make decisions about it as a country can be impacted by the silence of the research scientists who are looking at conditions.”
“It’s hugely destructive. I mean at some level, this is really BP versus the people of the United States.”
The spill, triggered by an April 20 explosion that killed 11 workers, unleashed an environmental disaster in the Gulf, devastating the region’s tourist and fishing industries.