June 3, 2010 — -- New videos show more clearly than ever how BP, with little resistance from the Coast Guard or other federal agencies, kept the public in the dark about just how bad things were beneath the surface of the Gulf of Mexico.
On May 1, 11 days after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, and nine days after oil began spilling into the Gulf, the Coast Guard had still only released a single image of oil leaking a mile beneath the surface -- a fuzzy photograph of a broken pipe spewing oil.
But inside the unified command center, where BP and federal agencies were orchestrating the spill response, video monitors had already displayed hours of footage they did not make public. The images showed a far more dire situation unfolding underwater. The footage filmed by submarines showed three separate leaks, including one that was unleashing a torrent of oil into the Gulf.
BP officials said they made all the video available to federal officials.
"The video has been available to the unified command from the very beginning," said Mark Proegler, a BP spokesman. "It's always been here from the beginning. They had it."
Coast Guard officials told ABC News that BP refused to allow them to release the more startling images, arguing they were proprietary. But at the time, the agency was doing little to convey to the world what the images were showing. Coast Guard Admiral Mary Landry was sticking with estimates, calculated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which put the spill's size at about 5,000 barrels a day for several weeks. Coast Guard officials said they were focused on the response, and advised the public not to worry about just how much oil was pouring into the water.
"I would caution you not to get fixated on an estimate of how much is out there," said Adm. Landry.
Two days later, as oil continued to spew, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano said much the same thing.
"This fixation on the number of barrels is a little bit misleading," said Napolitano.
BP officials said everyone inside the Unified Command center in Louisiana agreed that the 5,000 barrel figure was the best they could offer.
But Dr. Ian MacDonald, an oceanographer and oil expert at Florida State University said he disagrees, and he remains "baffled and bothered" by the decision to keep under wraps the images that he believes indicated the spill was much bigger.
"We need to know what's coming at us," he told ABC News. "You know, we are Americans, we respond to threats. Don't sugarcoat it. Tell us the truth and we'll do the best we can. And I think that's exactly what didn't happen here. The government, I'm sorry to say has been behind the information curve every step in this process."
Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, said the apparent suppression of the tapes prevented an independent analysis of how much oil was spilling, a move that might eventually save BP millions, since federal fines are based on $1,000 a day per barrel.
The difference between a spill of 5,000 barrels a day and 20,000 barrels a day is $15 million a day."It clearly tells us why they drug their feet to release these tapes," Nelson said. "I guess they were hoping that they could get it under control and this whole problem would go away."