You might think that an accurate calculation of the amount of oil flowing into the gulf would be crucial to understanding the environmental impact of the spill.  You might also think that the nation’s top scientists would be a valuable partner to BP in the cleanup effort.  Apparently, BP would disagree.  Or do they have other priorities?

The oil giant refused to allow scientists to send measuring instruments to the site, and delayed releasing a video feed of the leak.  When it was finally made available, the company insisted that there was no “reliable” way to measure the rate of flow using the feed.  But scientists like Steven Wereley at Purdue University argue that there are in fact a number of proven methods for making just such a calculation, and have used the feed to calculate a rate of flow ten times higher than the rate BP was providing.

There are also a number of reports that BP, with the help of the Coast Guard, is trying to limit journalism in the disaster zone – more evidence of BP’s apparent efforts to coverup the extent of the damage:

•  A CBS film crew was threatened with arrest while filming an oil-covered beach.

•  The first question asked of a Newsweek reporter before being turned away from an island wildlife refuge was, ‘Is there any press with you?’”

•  A BP contract worker told the New York Daily News “There is a lot of coverup for BP.  They specifically informed us that they don’t want these pictures of the dead animals. They know the ocean will wipe away most of the evidence.”

There are a few reasons why BP might think it’s in their best interest to suppress accurate information and downplay the damage caused by the oil spill.  For one thing, the publicity is terrible for the company’s public image – shareholders have already been fleeing, and continuous bad press will make it hard to fight off calls for tougher regulations.  On top of that, accurate information about the extent of the damage will likely play a role in criminal charges and liability for what might turn out to be the largest tort in US history.

So, the cynical among us may not be surprised by the appearance that BP is trying to protect itself.  However, the company’s widely publicized efforts are not only counterproductive to the cleanup efforts, but may not be doing much good for their public image either.  They might be well advised to abide by what writer Brett Norman calls “the first lesson in disaster management PR: transparency.”