After Oil Rig Blast, BP Refused to Share Underwater Spill Footage

Under pressure from media, and from government officials, BP Tuesday released this single photo showing the "Main Oil Leak" from the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, and said video footage was coming.

During a series of dry-run exercises, where the U.S. Coast Guard, other agencies and oil companies practiced their response to major oil spill disasters, industry executives repeatedly pressed federal regulators to give them more say on what information would be released to the public if disaster struck.

Reports obtained in a joint investigation by ABC News and the Center for Public Integrity show oil companies targeted the potential release of "confidential" information as a key concern.

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That behind-the-scenes lobbying effort helped foretell a tug of war this week over images that BP America did not want the public to see as the company struggled to try and contain the massive spill unleashed after one of the company's offshore oil rigs exploded in the Gulf of Mexico.

Throughout the clean-up effort, BP has monitored the spill site around the clock using submarine-mounted cameras at the mouth of the spill. An official at Oceaneering International, the company that operates the submarines under a contract with BP, told ABC News he "could walk right down the hall and watch it, but I can't share it without BP's express permission."

Eric Smith, a professor at Tulane University's Energy Institute said that footage could help in making independent assessments of the scope of the spill. But it also could do public relations damage to BP. It has remained closely guarded and cannot be made public under the argument that it is "proprietary," according to Coast Guard officials who have received repeated requests to release the images.

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It is an argument that surfaced repeatedly during training exercises held jointly by the Coast Guard, other state and federal agencies, and major oil companies.

"Protecting proprietary information of private sector when merged with government information," was how the Coast Guard officials identified a key concern in a report filed after a 2002 war game, where they tried to plan out their response to a mock oil rig blowout in the Gulf of Mexico.

Wednesday, BP officials indicated that the company plans to release video of the underwater operations but did not provide a timeframe. On Tuesday, the company quietly added a photograph to their website showing oil gushing from the 12 inch riser pipe on the sea floor.

Smith, the Tulane professor, said the images "allow the engineers to develop mathematical models that can approximate the flow rate."

That came as government officials told reporters they were trying to persuade the company to be more forthcoming.

Asked if the White House could compel the company to release the video, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Tuesday the decision rests with BP, which controls the tapes. When Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-California) pressed a top BP executive on the question during congressional hearings Tuesday, she was told the videos are under joint government and industry control at the incident command center in New Orleans, where they are teaming up to orchestrate the spill response.

"Our understanding is there's far more than has been released," Boxer pressed after the BP executive told her it could not be retrieved." Will you get back to this committee? We would be interested in viewing those and making those public."

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