<em>Deepwater Horizon</em> BP oil spill: A clean-up worker picks up blobs of oil in absorbent snare
© Gerald Herbert/APA clean-up operation on Queen Bess Island, June 2010. BP pledged a $500m fund for independent research into the consequences of the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster.

Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show BP officials discussing how to influence the work of scientists

BP officials tried to take control of a $500m fund pledged by the oil company for independent research into the consequences of the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster, it has emerged.

Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show BP officials openly discussing how to influence the work of scientists supported by the fund, which was created by the oil company in May last year.

Russell Putt, a BP environmental expert, wrote in an email to colleagues on 24 June 2010: "Can we 'direct' GRI [Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative] funding to a specific study (as we now see the governor's offices trying to do)? What influence do we have over the vessels/equipment driving the studies vs the questions?".

The email was obtained by Greenpeace and shared with the Guardian.

The documents are expected to reinforce fears voiced by scientists that BP has too much leverage over studies into the impact of last year's oil disaster.

Those concerns go far beyond academic interest into the impact of the spill. BP faces billions in fines and penalties, and possible criminal charges arising from the disaster. Its total liability will depend in part on a final account produced by scientists on how much oil entered the gulf from its blown-out well, and the damage done to marine life and coastal areas in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. The oil company disputes the government estimate that 4.1m barrels of oil entered the gulf.

There is no evidence in the emails that BP officials were successful in directing research. The fund has since established procedures to protect its independence.

Other documents obtained by Greenpeace suggest that the politics of oil spill science was not confined to BP. The White House clashed with officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) last summer when drafting the administration's account of what has happened to the spilled oil.

On 4 August, Jane Lubchenco, the NOAA administrator, demanded that the White House issue a correction after it claimed that the "vast majority" of BP oil was gone from the Gulf.

A few days earlier, Lisa Jackson, the head of the EPA, and her deputy, Bob Perciasepe, had also objected to the White House estimates of the amount of oil dispersed in the gulf. "These calculations are extremely rough estimates yet when they are put into the press, which we want to happen, they will take on a life of their own," Perciasepe wrote.

Commenting on BP's email discussions about directing research, a spokeswoman for the oil company said: "BP appointed an independent research board to construct the long-term research programme."

But Kert Davies, Greenpeace US research director, said the oil company had crossed a line. "It's outrageous to see these BP executives discussing how they might manipulate the science programme," Davies said. "Their motivation last summer is abundantly clear. They wanted control of the science."

The $500m fund, which is to be awarded over the next decade, is by far the biggest potential source of support to scientists hoping to establish what happened to the oil.

A number of scientists had earlier expressed concerns that BP would attempt to point scientists to convenient areas of study - or try to suppress research that did not suit its business.

The first round of funds were awarded last May to a consortium of gulf coast researchers. "The rest we are all waiting with bated breath," said Ajit Subramaniam, a marine scientist at the Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory. "A lot of the funds might be for understanding future spills. It is also unclear what kind of strings will be attached with that money."

Another email, written by Karen Ragoonanan-Jalim, a BP environmental officer based in Trinidad, contains minutes of a meeting in Houma, Louisiana, in which officials discussed what kind of studies might best serve the oil company's interests.

Under agenda item two, she writes: "Discussions around GRI and whether or not BP can influence this long-term research programme ($500m) to undertake the studies we believe will be useful in terms of understanding the fate and effects of the oil on the environment, eg can we steer the research in support of restoration ecology?"

Ragoonanan-Jalim acknowledges that BP may not have that degree of control. "It may be possible for us to suggest the direction of the studies but without guarantee that they will be done."

The email goes on: "How do we determine what biological/ecological studies we (BP) will need to do in order to satisfy specific requirements (legislative/litigation, informing the response and remediation/restoration strategies)."