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

Message control was a key oil industry focus during disaster drills.

May 11, 2010, 3:03 PM

May 12, 2010 — -- 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."

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.

The nation has been gripped by scenes of a massive oil slick spreading across the Gulf of Mexico since the BP-operated Horizon Deepwater rig exploded April 20 and sank two days later leaving behind a massive oil leak that has yet to be contained.

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Oil industry officials told members of Congress Tuesday that new technology is being used to combat the ongoing spill. In response to questions, they identified the use of dispersants to attack the spill under water as a new approach that had been honed over the past several years. But they also acknowledged that a spill at this depth has presented them with problems they weren't prepared for.

"I think, after this is under control and thought about in hindsight, there will be some ideas about how to make the subsea intervention and response better," said BP America's chairman and president, Lamar McKay. "I think we're learning right now as we go."

U.S. officials said in interviews that the elaborate dry runs taught them important lessons that are making the ongoing response stronger and more effective. But they also acknowledged that they have yet to resolve some of the persistent problems related to communication, coordination and technology problems that surfaced during the drill conducted March 24-25 in New England, simulating a response to an oil tanker leaking 18 million gallons of crude after a collision off the coast of Maine.

"Every exercise you do, you come out with the question of whether your communication skills are up to the challenge," Coast Guard Lt. Kelly Dietrich said in an interview.

But Dietrich said the Coast Guard and its federal allies have made steady improvement through the training exercises and don't deserve some of the criticisms that have been raised by lawmakers and residents in the Gulf.

"We always go out with full force," she said. "It always seems to the public that it seems slow because most people aren't involved in the preparatory work."

ABC News' Asa Eslocker contributed to this report.Click Here for the Blotter Homepage.