Research Paralysis: BP Makes a Mockery of Time-Sensitive Environmental Studies


As we move beyond the first-year anniversary of the Gulf oil spill, scientists are slamming BP for taking “far too long” in allocating tens of millions in research funding to assess environmental damages tied to the disaster. In fact, some scientists say it may already be too late to ever get an accurate evaluation – and I would argue that’s got BP execs high-fiving in Houston.

The immediacy of the evidence-gathering is critical, so with each passing day (that BP withholds funding), the likelihood decreases that scientists will be able to get the research done before the trail of evidence goes cold. An Associated Press report quotes ecotoxicologist Dana Wetzel from Florida’s Mote Marine Laboratory: “It’s like a murder scene. You have to pick up the evidence now.”

BP pledged $500 million – $50 million a year for 10 years – in research funding to study the spill’s impacts and develop plans for handling future disasters. This year’s funding is long overdue and the delay may cause researchers to miss the spring spawning for marine life, like shrimp, and nesting season for sea birds like pelicans. From the AP report:

Michael Carron, a Mississippi marine scientist selected to head the BP-funded post-spill research project, the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative, doubted money would be available before June. He acknowledged not being able to study the spring spawning in full bloom would be a problem.

The window is closing quickly, and whether the slow funding is the result of an unorganized, incompetent process or a well-executed plan to stall the studies, we can only venture an educated guess. I would argue it’s the latter.

We’ve seen BP use the delay tactic to its advantage repeatedly over the course of the last year – and it’s been about limiting liability every time, from releasing high-definition video of the wellhead to compensating spill victims to funding restoration projects.

Marine scientist Michael Carron expanded on the need for research to begin as soon as possible: “This will be the first good glimpse of what happened to larvae, the first class” of species born during and after the spill.

And it’s not just about the timing of the research, it’s also about who controls it. According to the AP report, “the funds will be overseen by a BP-hired contractor, and the oil giant has appointed half of the members on a 20-member board that will decide what research to do.”

So let’s review. The funding is coming too late to get an accurate assessment of damages. BP, to a large degree, will control the research that is conducted. And did I mention that, according to some scientists, the research being conducted by BP and the federal government for the “natural resource damage assessment” isn’t very good to begin with. The AP reports:

While a lot of sampling and data collection is being done by BP and the federal government in the natural resource damage assessment, the legal battle over damage to the ecosystem also known as NRDA, scientists say that work is hardly cutting-edge and may not pick up the subtlest of changes in reproduction, DNA and other important factors.

Researchers continue to wait for the funding to come through so they can get out into the field and do their job. Ecotoxicologist Dana Wetzel: “We’re in the waiting room. We still don’t know what’s happened and we’re waiting for someone to step up and say this is important to find out.”

Time is running out on getting these short-term studies done – and it’s clear that BP isn’t looking to speed things up in any way.

See the AP take on an increasingly urgent situation:

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