BP's subpoena of emails casts 'chill,' scientists say

Two U.S. scientists who helped BP assess the extent of the massive 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico say the company's subpoenaing of their private emails has the potential to cast a chill on the scientific process.

Demand for private correspondence undermines scientific process, researchers say

Fire boat response crews battle the blazing remnants of the offshore oil rig Deepwater Horizon, off the coast of Louisiana on April 21, 2010. The explosion occurred when a well being drilled by BP blew out, killing 11 rig workers and spewing oil into the Gulf for 87 days. (Handout/U.S. Coast Guard/Reuters )

Two U.S. scientists who helped BP assess the scale of the massive 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico say the company's subpoenaing of their private emails has the potential to cast a chill on the scientific process.

In a commentary published in the Boston Globe newspaper last week, Christopher Reddy and Richard Camilli of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts questioned BP's motives for demanding access to more than 3,000 emails sent by the two men while they were carrying out measurements to assess how much oil leaked into the Gulf when BP's Deepwater Horizon well blew out off the coast of Louisiana.

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BP's lawyers subpoenaed the emails as part of their defence in a civil lawsuit brought against BP and several other companies by the U.S. government, which is alleging the oil giant was negligent in not taking the appropriate safety precautions and violated provisions of the Clean Water Act.

But Reddy and Camilli, who are not part of the lawsuit, which was filed in the United States District Court in New Orleans, say BP already has more than 50,000 pages of documents, reports and raw data related to their research that they had turned over when BP said it wanted a better understanding of their findings.

Incomplete deliberations open to misinterpretation

The two researchers, who were asked by BP and the U.S. Coast Guard to help evaluate the scope of the April 2010 disaster, which killed 11 people and various marine animals and wildlife, calculated that the well blow-out released about 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf over the course of almost three months, and they published two scientific papers on the subject.

An image from a live video feed showing oil gushing from BP's ruptured well in the Gulf of Mexico on July 12, 2010. (Handout/BP/Reuters)

Now, they fear that releasing private correspondence between scientists engaged in a candid discussion in which they often question each other's ideas and challenge each other's conclusions as part of the rigorous process of ensuring their science is solid could be misinterpreted and used to undermine their findings.

"Incomplete thoughts and half-finished documents attached to emails can be taken out of context and impugned by people who have a motive for discrediting the findings," the scientists write. "In addition to obscuring true scientific findings, this situation casts a chill over the scientific process.

"In future crises, scientists may censor or avoid deliberations, and more importantly, be reluctant to volunteer valuable expertise and technology that emergency responders don't possess."

Reddy and Camilli say the release of such documents also jeopardizes scientists' control over their intellectual property, In their case, their emails include information about robotic navigation tools and sub-sea surveillance technologies developed by their research institution that could prove valuable to BP.

"Ultimately, this is not about BP. Our experience highlights that virtually all of scientists' deliberative communications, including emails and attached documents, can be subject to legal proceedings without limitation," the researchers write.


Kazi Stastna

Senior Producer

Kazi Stastna is a senior producer with She has worked as a features writer and copy editor with CBC's digital news team for over a decade. Prior to that, she was at the Montreal Gazette and worked as a reporter and editor in Germany and the Czech Republic.