BP has been trying to hire marine scientists from universities around the Gulf Coast in an apparent move to bolster the company's legal defense against anticipated lawsuits related to the Gulf oil spill, according to a report from The Press-Register in Mobile, Ala.
Scientists from Louisiana State University, Mississippi State University and Texas A&M have reportedly accepted BP's offer, according to the paper.
The federal government is expected to file a massive Natural Resources Damage Assessment lawsuit against BP, and it'll have to draw on large amounts of scientific research to build its case.
Robert Wiygul, an Ocean Springs lawyer who specializes in environmental law, said BP is in effect denying the government access to valuable information by hiring the scientists and adding them to its legal team. "It also buys silence," Wiygul told the Press-Register, "thanks to confidentiality clauses in the contracts."
Scientists who sign the contract to work for BP will be subject to a strict confidentiality agreement. They will be barred from publishing, sharing or even speaking about data they collected for at least three years.
George Crozier, director of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, who was approached by BP, told the paper: "It makes me feel like they were more interested in making sure we couldn't testify against them than in having us testify for them."
BP even tried to hire the entire marine sciences department at the University of South Alabama, according to the report. Bob Shipp, the head of the department, said he declined the offer because of the confidentiality clause.
The National Resources Defense Council has also claimed that BP is seeking to obstruct scientific research. BP earlier announced it had earmarked $500 million to scientists to study the oil spill. But the NRDC said the oil company is simply buying the cooperation of the scientists who collect valuable data.
In a letter to BP's CEO Tony Hayward, NRDC director Peter Lehner said the company should give the money to an independent entity like the National Academy of Sciences, which would then dole out the sums to other scientists. "Anything less must be construed as BP's attempt to control the study," NRDC blogger Sarah Chasis said.
But according to the Press-Register, Shipp can't prevent his colleagues from signing on with BP because staff members are allowed to do outside consultation for up to eight hours a week.
"More than one scientist interviewed by the Press-Register described being offered $250 an hour through BP lawyers," the article said. "At eight hours a week, that amounts to $104,000 a year."