Can Censorship Lead to Oil Spills?

As evidence mounts that the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico might have been averted if experts’ warnings had been heeded, a troubling picture of suppression of scientific information in favor of a push to “drill, baby, drill” is emerging.

Only days before the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, a report by the government accountability office (GAO) revealed that the Minerals Management Service, the notoriously corruption-rife government agency still responsible for regulating the oil industry, had suppressed scientific evidence of environmental risks that might get in the way of proposed off shore drilling in Alaska.  “GAO confirmed what we have known all along, there is something rotten in Alaska,” said Cindy Shogan, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League.  “Good decisionmaking requires solid information, and that has been missing from the Alaska MMS decisionmaking for some time. Now it turns out that MMS intentionally kept key information from its own experts. This is outrageous.”

In fact, many of the MMS’s most experienced scientists had left the agency after their concerns over environmental threats fell on deaf ears.  Others were apparently pressured to produce work to favor a go-ahead for the Alaskan oil drilling, or had their work rewritten without their consent.

The Alaskan regional MMS also failed to follow its own information sharing policy, which requires “that all reports submitted by industry—including proprietary information—should be shared within one working day with MMS staff involved in environmental analyses.”  In apparent violation of this policy, the MMS was sharing information with its environmental analysts only on a need-to-know basis and required signed confidentiality agreements to document the sharing of the information.   Justified by MMS regional managers as necessary to protect proprietary information, this procedure sometimes prevented environmental analysts from receiving the reports they were charged with assessing and hindered their ability to perform sound environmental analyses.

As the Gulf Oil Spill disaster has made abundantly clear, it is vital that the science on which our government bases decisions be done impartially, preserved from political and economic pressure to produce certain results.  While the Obama administration was lauded early on for declaring its intention to prevent the grievous manipulations characteristic of the Bush administration, efforts to achieve this goal stalled.  Recently, though, there has been some positive action: Congress is considering legislation to extend whistleblower protection to scientists, and this May the White House began soliciting ideas on how to implement a presidential directive to protect the integrity of the science relied on by the federal government.

But while the slow wheels of government are turning, the damage may already be done: for instance, members of the scientific community are criticizing the Obama administration for failing to release test results on water from the deep ocean of the Gulf of Mexico.  “It seems baffling that we don’t know how much oil is being spilled,” said Sylvia Earle, a famed oceanographer.  “It seems baffling that we don’t know where the oil is in the water column.”

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Blogging Censorship is where National Coalition Against Censorship staff weigh in on the censorship issues on their minds.
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