August 1, 2010
In Oil Spill, University Scientists' Expertise Was Dumped Missteps in Gulf
disaster point to need for a research emergency-response team

By Paul Basken

In what could have been one of the few slivers of good fortune in the murk
of the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster, a university research vessel was
stationed just 10 miles away when the Deepwater Horizon rig collapsed three
months ago after a fiery blast.

Scientists on board the 116-foot *R/V Pelican*, operated by the Louisiana
Universities Marine Consortium, immediately began taking sediment and water
samples ahead of what researchers hoped would be a wave of colleagues
rushing out to map the size and effects of the nation's worst offshore oil
spill—and figure out ways to combat it.

That wave never came.

No contingency plan for research was in place. Instead, confusion reigned.
Oil-dispersant chemicals were dumped into the Gulf with little idea of the
hazards, fisheries were shut and tourist beaches vacated, and key lessons
about handling a future spill went largely unlearned.

"Everybody was waiting to be mobilized," said Michael Carron, director of
the Northern Gulf Institute at Mississippi State University, of the dozens
of available university researchers, "and it just didn't happen."

It didn't have to be that way, according to marine researchers. Government
leaders, after past disasters such as the *Exxon Valdez* oil spill in 1989
and Hurricane Katrina in 2005, have been urged to develop a system in which
the critical expertise of researchers and institutions can be immediately
brought to bear on matters of national urgency, said Frank E. Muller-Karger,
a professor of biological oceanography at the University of South Florida.

Instead, the country now digs out from yet another disaster—up to a million
jobs lost, and major, continuing environmental consequences—without a clear
understanding of the underlying scientific facts. "We have gone through
this" in the past, Mr. Muller-Karger said, "and we always end up in the same
Verifying the Facts

One basic failure exposed by the BP explosion is the government's lackluster
support of a planned network of regional ocean-monitoring systems. The
network, intended to track complex ocean currents in roughly the way the
National Weather Service tracks atmospheric conditions, has been getting
less than $40-million in annual federal financing. That's not even a third
of the amount recommended by a national commission that studied the matter
in 2004.

Scientifically blinded by such decisions, and lacking an emergency corps of
scientists, government officials were left to trust BP for weeks on
fundamental facts such as the amount of oil and natural gas pouring out of
its broken pipeline. Those estimates of 5,000 barrels per day now seem
absurdly low.

Once Congress forced BP to make available video of the ruptured well, about
a month into the spill, it took Steven T. Wereley, a professor of mechanical
engineering at Purdue University, just a couple hours sitting at home to
estimate that 70,000 barrels a day of both oil and natural gas were coming
out of the pipe. The government's own detailed analysis after Mr. Wereley's
calculation put the range at between 35,000 and 60,000 barrels.

BP, with a "budget bigger than most countries," could have reached the same
conclusion from the start, Mr. Wereley said. Without pressure from
independent experts, "they weren't compelled to find a better number," he

The company also made assertions about the safety of chemicals used to
disperse the oil, then discounted the likelihood that those chemicals would
largely help hide the oil beneath the surface of the Gulf, where university
researchers say it has become much harder to track and assess its effects on
animal and plant life.

And it wasn't just the company making high-stakes decisions in the absence
of rigorous study. The governor of Louisiana, Bobby Jindal, has been
aggressively pressing the idea of using huge piles of sand and rocks to
block the oil from reaching ecologically sensitive marshes, even as numerous
outside experts reject the plan as a costly boondoggle that might even
accelerate the flow of water across coastlines.

"Environmental damage resulting from ill-conceived, poorly reviewed coastal
engineering may become an additional and unnecessary byproduct of the
spill," at least two dozen scientists said in an open letter organized by
Robert S. Young, a professor of coastal geology who is director of the
Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina
University. The university experts appear to be winning that debate, in part
because the threat of oil coating the coastline seems to be receding.

That diminished concern highlights a key way in which further research might
actually help BP. Some experts warned that virtually all the spilled oil
would eventually foul Gulf coastlines, as happened with the *Exxon
Valdez *disaster
in Alaska, creating damage that lasts for decades. Others point out that the
Exxon spill began along the shore, from a broken tanker, while the complex
nature of ocean currents a mile below the water surface will hand BP a
completely different outcome.
Money for Research

The limited record of existing research and the history of previous
underwater spills provide little clear evidence about what actually happens
to oil caught in the frigid swirl of an ocean, said Lisa Suatoni, a senior
scientist in the oceans program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an
advocacy group. There are strong indications, though, that much of the oil
might simply get consumed by bacteria before it goes anywhere else, Ms.
Suatoni said. It's a highly complicated research question, she said, and one
that involves a host of trade-offs. One bad one, for instance, could be that
oil-engorged bacteria will form large, smothering blooms, enlarging
oxygen-deprived dead zones deeper in the Gulf already being fed by
fertilizer runoff from farms.

University scientists hoping to help solve such puzzles while remaining
independent and free to publish their findings remain in a bind. That's
because BP still stands as the chief source of available research money,
having announced in May that it would spend $500-million to support research
into the spill and its effects. The company has delivered $30-million to
several groups of universities in the Gulf region to kick off some initial

The federal government's contribution to independent research, by contrast,
largely consists of a $5-million allocation offered through the National
Science Foundation's system of "rapid response" emergency grants. Three
months into the spill, researchers are "still waiting to hear" about money
from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the federal agency
leading the disaster response, for any work other than that aimed at
preparing a court case against BP, said Denis A. Wiesenburg, vice president
for research at the University of Southern Mississippi. Congress is working
on legislation that could establish a trust fund for ocean research out of
oil-company revenue.

Wariness about accepting money directly from BP only intensified after the
company offered many university researchers in the Gulf region an
opportunity to take paid consulting positions to help the company with its
response to the spill. The company backed off after news reports described
company-proposed contract language that could restrict researchers from
discussing or publishing their findings. BP representatives did not respond
to *The Chronicle'*s requests for comment.

BP has also been vague about its plans for distributing the bulk of its
$500-million commitment. The company has formed what it called an
"independent" advisory panel of academic experts to guide the process. But
while praising the credentials of the participants, some experts question
the group's true autonomy under a corporate umbrella. Even the federal
government has banned its researchers from joining projects that use BP
money. "We just don't know how it is going to operate, how much independence
the researchers are going to have," said Steven A. Murawski, chief scientist
for the fisheries service at NOAA.
Working Together

Some universities, such as Texas Tech, are trying to work around the problem
by dispatching researchers with empty expense accounts, hoping to find
financing later, perhaps from BP but hopefully also from their state and
from private donors. The need is too important to wait, said Ronald J.
Kendall, chairman of Texas Tech's department of environmental toxicology.

Mr. Kendall cites sea turtles, which feed off the Louisiana coast but
establish nests in Texas, as a prime example of the immediate research needs
in a state that thus far has been overlooked by both federal and BP-financed

Such jostling for research support is an example of turf battles emerging
among states, institutions, and individual scientists. The NSF's director
for ocean sciences, Phillip R. Taylor, recently sent a letter to all its
Gulf grant recipients reminding them of their obligation to fully share all
their data. "Any matters related to data propriety, publication embargo, or
personal scientific benefit from these activities are secondary to the
national need to contain and address this disaster," Mr. Taylor wrote.

That underlines the need for a federally coordinated scientific response to
emergencies, says Mr. Carron. Without it, various groups of university
researchers, each working on their own projects, may not be willing to
abandon their commitments, said Mr. Murawski, from NOAA. "This isn't a
top-down situation," he said. "People don't take orders from us."

The researchers who were on the* R/V Pelican* when the Deepwater Horizon rig
collapsed nearby were using federal money to study hydrates, the frozen gas
molecules that occur naturally in the seabed and were later blamed for the
one of the failed attempts to shut off the gusher from the broken pipeline.
The *Pelican *crew took some samples of the contamination caused by the BP
rig but didn't have enough storage or chemicals to do more, said Carol B.
Lutken, associate director for marine programs at the Mississippi Mineral
Resources Institute, part of the University of Mississippi.

The failure of government to have an emergency scientific-response
capability may ultimately prove to be one of the most important shortcomings
brought to light by the BP disaster, said Mr. Carron. Such a system could
help the country deal with a range of possible sudden threats to human
health and safety, such as a meteor that could wipe out much of the world's
population, Mr. Carron said. "The problem is that with low-probability,
high-impact events, we tend not to prepare very well because there's no
immediate payoff," he said.

Mr. Murawski said he agreed that the BP spill pointed out the need for some
kind of improvement in responses, if even just the creation of an emergency
"call list" of university experts. "We're going to have to look at the
lessons learned from this," he said.