Oil giant says it is just keeping company data confidential, as it faces 200 federal civil lawsuits over spill.
BP has rejected accusations of muzzling the scientists and academics it has hired to help fight hundreds of lawsuits relating to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
The American Association of University Professors claims the oil giant is seeking to “buy the silence” of the scientific community in its fight against litigation.
But BP says it is only protecting confidential information and is not trying to prevent the discussion of scientific data.
A copy of the contract issued by BP to scientists, obtained by the BBC, says they cannot publish the research they conduct for BP or speak about the data for at least three years, or until the government gives the final approval to the company’s restoration plan for the gulf.
It also states that scientists may perform research for other agencies only so long as it does not conflict with the work they are doing for BP, and that they must take instructions from lawyers offering the contracts and other in-house counsel at the oil company.
Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, criticised the contract. He told the BBC: “This is really one huge corporation trying to buy faculty silence in a comprehensive way.”
Bob Shipp, head of marine sciences at the University of South Alabama and one of the scientists approached by BP’s lawyers, said the company wanted to hire his whole department.
“They contacted me and said we would like to have your department interact to develop the best restoration plan possible after this oil spill,” he said. “We laid the ground rules – that any research we did, we would have to take total control of the data, transparency and the freedom to make those data available to other scientists and subject to peer review. They left and we never heard back from them.”
BP said that it had hired a number of experts to help with the lawsuits, as well as a number of national and local scientists with expertise in the resources of the gulf of Mexico to help in restoration work.
“These scientists are helping us collect and understand data about the impacts of the oil spill on the natural resources and to plan for restoration of those resources,” BP said.
“As is customary, we have asked these experts (more than a dozen) to treat information from BP counsel as confidential. However, BP does not take the position that environmental data are confidential.
“Moreover, BP does not place restrictions on academics speaking about scientific data.”
Seven federal judges next week will meet attorneys in Boise, Idaho, to try and decide whether or how to consolidate more than 200 federal civil lawsuits filed by a range of claimants, from fishermen to injured rig workers, oil-rig owner Transocean and other contractors tied to the spill.
The judges will consider two key questions: where the cases will be heard and who will preside over them.
The lawsuits range from civil racketeering and personal-injury suits to claims from out-of-work shrimpers and owners of now-vacant hotels on the gulf shore.
The cost of the spill to BP has already exceeded $3.1bn (£2bn), and the company has pledged some of its assets as security to the US government while it builds up a promised $20bn compensation fund. Analysts at Goldman Sachs estimate the final bill for the disaster caused by the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig, which killed 11 workers, could run to $70bn.