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."
BP America President Lamar McKay told senators the company is "making every effort to keep the public and government officials informed of what is happening."
"BP executives have regularly briefed the President's Cabinet and National Security Council team, members of Congress, the governors and attorneys general of the Gulf Coast states, and many local officials."
Carefully guarding the flow of information has been a hallmark of BP's response to oil field disasters, according to Brent Coon, a lawyer who represented victims of a BP oil refinery explosion in Texas City.
"Less than three hours after the BP Texas City plant erupted in fire, blasting out windows miles away, BP already had their PR and damage control team in place," Coon said, citing an internal corporate email in which BP officials predict coverage of the explosion would subside after the holiday weekend.
Attention to handling the media response to a major oil spill was just one focus of the four elaborate exercises staged by the U.S. Coast Guard over the past decade, the after action reports show.
As early as 2002, the practice runs also indicated that oil companies lacked updated equipment to mount an effective response to a spill, and would need to be forced by the government to invest in better technology.
"Without requirements in place to require use of new response technologies they will not be developed and deployed adequately," said an after-action report from the summer 2002 drill that simulated an oil leak from a sunken rig in the Gulf of Mexico that was eerily similar to the current disaster. "There is little incentive for [oil companies] to invest in them and therefore, little incentive for technology companies to develop or refine these technologies further."
Those requirements were never forced on the companies and, as a result, the oil spill response underway in the Gulf is being mounted with booms and skimmers that some industry experts described as antiquated and of limited value.
"The technology that's being used on the surface is over 30 years old," said Jerome Milgram, a professor of marine technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "I can say this. I don't see any practical effect for putting out booms when the sea conditions are such that the booms are totally ineffective."
BP's "worst case" scenario for a huge oil spill in the Gulf relies heavily on being able to boom and skim a half million barrels a day, according to the oil spill response plan the company filed with federal regulators.
Carl Pope, chairman of the Sierra Club, called that "fantasy." "These are not serious plans, and yet the government accepts them as a basis for drilling," he said.