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Another Gulf mystery: Who's in charge of oil spill research?

WASHINGTON — As an unprecedented amount of oil fouls the Gulf of Mexico, research scientists and ocean experts say the Obama administration's efforts to discover the magnitude of the damage are surprisingly uncoordinated.

If the government's higher estimates are accurate, the BP oil blowout already is the world's worst accidental oil spill ever.

Despite a spill that may already total more than 150 million gallons of oil, however, neither federal officials nor BP has mounted a speedy, focused inquiry to understand its impact.

The result:

  • There's no comprehensive strategy for scientific inquiry in the Gulf. Therefore, there's no central system for organizing the research, sharing information or avoiding duplication.
  • Two and a half months after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and sank, little is known about the present location of the plumes of oil and dispersants, where they're heading or how toxic the brew will be to creatures in its path.
  • Since BP is providing the bulk of the funds to study the oil spill, some scientists question whether firm's potential liability for future environmental damage could compromise the independence and scope of the scientific research in the Gulf.
  • That so much about the spill remains unknown is "kind of mind-boggling," said Frank Muller-Karger, a professor of biological oceanography at the University of South Florida. He said that one of the biggest problems he sees is the lack of a "war-room-type scenario" to coordinate all the research.

    Christopher F. D'Elia, the dean of the School of the Coast and Environment at Louisiana State University, agrees.

    "In my view, this is one of those all-hands-on-deck moments and we need to be devoting the resources necessary to understand this spill in every dimension regardless of who pays, because ultimately we'll pay a lot more as a nation if we don't do it right."

    To be sure, federal officials and the Deepwater Horizon Unified Command have described a growing research effort. Since Memorial Day, six research vessels and 10 underwater monitors have been deployed. Just this week, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution — a preeminent research organization in Massachusetts — launched an unmanned research vehicle with a sensor to detect oil.

    And Friday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration agreed, at the urging of a group of East Coast senators, to begin making long-term projections for the path of the spill and its potential impact beyond Gulf shores.

    "Coastal communities up and down the Atlantic . . . have raised concerns over the BP spill getting caught in the Loop Current and affecting the East Coast," said Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., who led the request. "Science-based probabilities like these help these communities understand the current threat of oil reaching their shores and will help ensure full preparedness."

    Scientists involved in the research, however, say they remain in the dark and don't know if enough is being done.

    A group of more than 200 federal and university ocean scientists, who recently issued a report for a June 3 symposium on the Deepwater Horizon spill, called for central coordination of the research.

    They also appealed for more research on the extent of subsurface plumes of oil, how oil and gas is mixed in the water, how the oil is changing over time and where it's moving, and what the chemicals from the oil and the dispersants used to break it down will do to the ocean and its creatures.

    D'Elia of Louisiana State University said the federal government should do more to share what its own scientists are learning and bring in outside researchers.

    "Whatever the federal government is up to — it may be well planned internally within the federal government, but the involvement of the outside research world is inadequate in my view," he said.

    The reaction by scientists to the Obama administration's handling of the research echoes criticism of the government overall response. Governors and other state officials along the Gulf coast complain about the lack of resources and about the slowness of a cleanup. Residents rail at BP for the loss of their jobs, for its claims process and for BP's efforts to limit its legal liability from the spill.

    Others say BP has manipulated information, making estimates of the amount of gushing crude impossible to determine and assessments of the health effects on workers, residents and wildlife difficult to make.

    However, the criticism about the scientific research into the spill is widespread.

    "It's a huge and difficult problem. This is very, very challenging," D'Elia said. "But what we're seeing right now is very little in the way of federal resources have been allocated to the external research community to do work."

    Nancy Rabalais, an oceanographer and the director of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, said there is considerable mystery in the Gulf.

    "There's no single entity that's coordinating all the results and data from the research that's going on, whether it's within a (federal) agency or agency-funded or BP-funded. I can't say and I'm not sure anybody can say" what her fellow scientists are working on. "We don't know if it's adequately covered right now."

    Stan Senner, the director of conservation science at the advocacy group Ocean Conservancy, who coordinated science and restoration programs for the state of Alaska after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, said that some government officials want to shift funds quickly to onshore restoration work and curtail funds for research of the oil's impacts. He said he agreed with the sense of urgency about habitat restoration, but also said it was important to study the effects on the environment over the long term.

    "It's not just science for the sake of science," he said, "but it's so we can better assess the risk in the future and understand the true impact of events like this."

    Robert Gagosian, the president of the Consortium for Ocean Leadership, which represents ocean research institutions and aquariums and manages a program on ocean drilling research, said the U.S. needs a national science plan to study the oil in the Gulf and improvements in its "woefully underfunded" ocean observing system.

    A former director of the Woods Hole center and a marine geochemist, Gagosian and others say they're concerned about how the $500 million BP has promised for research and restoration gets spent. He said he hoped it would be handled through peer-reviewed grants.

    With BP's interest in preserving its business, some worry whether the proper criteria will be used in assessing what research should be done.

    Jeff Short, a former NOAA scientist who's now with the conservation group Oceana, said that by insisting that BP pay for the research, the government is ceding control over what studies are conducted.

    "I find myself wondering why would BP want to guide money into projects that would clearly show much larger environmental damage than would have come to light otherwise," he said.

    BP announced on June 15 that it had picked six scientists to oversee a review of proposals for the $500 million, and that their work would be independent.

    One of the six — Jorge Imberger, the director of the Centre for Water Research at the University of Western Australia — said it hasn't been decided yet how the money will be divided.

    Imberger said his committee had been about to send out requests for proposals, "but now, politics seems to have gotten in the way."

    The day after BP announced its panel, the White House issued a statement that said that part of these funds would be spent with input from governors and other state and local officials.

    Some observers have questioned how independent the science committee could be if BP selected it. Natural Resources Defense Council director Peter Lehner suggested that the company give the money to the National Academy of Sciences and let the academy choose how to disburse the funds.

    The first $25 million of the BP funds was quickly distributed to Louisiana State University, the Florida Institute of Oceanography at the University of South Florida and a consortium led by Mississippi State University.

    BP isn't telling the universities how to use the money, said Steven Lohrenz, a professor of biological oceanography at the University of Southern Mississippi, one of the schools receiving part of the funds.

    Lohrenz said that NOAA and other federal agencies are doing their best, but their budgets are strapped.

    "It's very appropriate for BP to step up and fund the research," he said. "What we would like to see in a perfect world is a more coordinated research strategy with additional resources coming in from a variety of sources and try to maximize the capabilities we have."

    The main restraint on research has been lack of funds, Lohrenz said. "This is such a massive event. There's so much about it that's unprecedented."

    NOAA said that the research wouldn't be limited by BP's willingness to fund it, but, in a statement in response to questions, the agency said that BP has been the source of funding for "many, but not all" of the research missions.

    The National Science Foundation, an independent federal agency, has given more than two dozen awards totaling more than $3 million for research on the oil spill.

    In a written response to questions, NOAA said it hadn't issued any formal requests for scientific research proposals.

    "This is an unusual crisis response and there is a flexibility built into these science missions that will enable the most pressing scientific questions to be pursued and answered," the agency said.


    Ocean Leadership Consortium summary of scientists' meeting on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill

    Woods Hole research mission

    Data from underwater gliders


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