Opinion: Gulf science sputters


As we prepare to observe the one year anniversary of the Macondo well blowout last April in the Gulf of Mexico, independent scientists are still struggling to conduct research on the ecological effects of the runaway oil and subsequent cleanup activities. Initially, funds for research and access to the coast were significant barriers. Twelve months on, money is still difficult to procure, and now it seems that obtaining crude oil for experimental purposes is nearly impossible.

True, the National Institutes of Health recently launched a huge study to investigate the effects of oil and the subsequent cleanup efforts on human health. The study, overseen by the NIH’s National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, is a step in the right direction and will track the health of workers involved in the cleanup. But one could argue that even this massive effort falls short for failing to include Gulf residents — people who live on the northern Gulf Coast who depend upon local ecosystems for work, food, and play.

Even with that caveat, at least the oil’s and dispersant’s effects on human health are being assessed in a widespread and somewhat independent fashion. A similarly coordinated effort to study ecosystem impacts of this massive flow of oil, however, is missing and desperately needed.

Since the accident, I have authored or co-authored four pre-proposals and five full, competitive, peer-reviewed proposals for funding to study the oil’s impacts in salt marshes fringing the Gulf. While I have received some funding, the money comes in an unusual piecewise fashion. Three grants provide funding for my research until December 2011, while one pending proposal may provide additional support through April 2012. Because of this funding paradigm, I have been unable to focus on my research, as I’m constantly applying for the next bite-sized grant.

The National Science Foundation, which jump-started many independent scientists’ post-DWH disaster research projects, has not announced a concerted program to support further research (on anything other than social sciences). It seems the sentiment is that BP created the problem, so they should fund research on the aftermath.

Indeed, BP announced in May 2010 that it would put $500 million into the Gulf Research Initiative (GRI). Of that money, $40 million was dispersed last summer to Gulf State research institutions. My employer, Louisiana State University (LSU), received $5 million. Seventy one proposals were submitted for $2 million of that money, and my research group, along with 12 others, was awarded $150,000 in August. We have yet another proposal under consideration for an additional $2 million that LSU expects to disperse in April. Of 61 submitted pre-proposals vying for this next round of awards, only eight full proposals will receive full funding. The university has not yet announced plans regarding the remaining $1 million.

Last September, the Gulf of Mexico Alliance (GOMA) announced that it would oversee dispersing the remaining $460 million in GRI funding over the next 9 years. An executive committee was formed with 10 members from the five affected Gulf States, and 10 members appointed by BP. Scientists were told that a request for proposals (RFP) would be announced on December 1, 2010. In late December, we were told that at the latest, the RFP would be released February 1, 2011. February came and went, and we were told to expect it March 1, 2011. As of this writing, the RFP still has not been released. My colleagues and I fear we will run out of research money before the GRI-GOMA proposals are reviewed and funded.

Even if we could properly fund our research, oil from the geographic feature in which the Macondo wellhead was sunk, Mississippi Canyon 252, which is necessary for some scientists to test their hypotheses, is extremely hard to come by. Scientists who wish to conduct mesocosm work on crabs, shrimp or fish are still waiting for MC252 oil samples or surrogate Louisiana sweet crude.

Both the US government and BP collected oil in the aftermath of the explosion. My colleagues have been issued a standard letter from BP stating that oil is not available for distribution. US District Judge Carl Barbier issued a preservation order last July that the 110,000+ barrels (more than 4.6 million gallons) of oil collected cannot be distributed. This oil must be maintained as evidence, presumably so that each side in the litigation has enough MC252 oil at their disposal.

I have recently been offered the opportunity to obtain Gulf crude oil for my studies through two of my funding sources, the Northern Gulf Institute and GRI. Colleagues and I have requested oil through BP’s Reference Oil Request Manager, and we’re told that “BP remains committed to providing samples to legitimate researchers.” BP has implemented a tiered approach to doling out the oil on the basis of whether (1) analytical data from MC252 oil could be used in place of actual oil, (2) surrogate oil (Louisiana sweet crude) could be substituted, or (3) MC252 oil is absolutely necessary for the research.

BP’s Reference Oil Request Manager has forwarded our request to a contractor from Jacobs Engineering. That representative has requested a mini-proposal with a literature review, objectives, expected results and specific reasons necessitating a precise amount of crude oil. This request is scrutinized by a committee usually within a day, and if the amount of oil needed is questioned, the principle investigator must send more information to the review committee. We have been told that once the request is approved, we will receive the oil in 3-4 weeks. I haven’t yet heard of any researcher who has had their request approved.

The lack of money and availability of what was once ubiquitous oil is a loss for independent researchers. But the real losers are the inhabitants of the Gulf States hit hardest by this environmental disaster, the state and local policy makers that depend on objective results from independent scientists, and the plants and animals still dealing with the effects of one of the largest oil spills ever.

Linda Hooper-Bui is an ecosystem biologist at Louisiana State University A&M and the LSU Agricultural Center who specializes in disturbance ecology of ants and other arthropods.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
Cooper Law Firm

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