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Gulf Spill Could Produce Wealth of Scientific Knowledge

Matthew O. Berger

WASHINGTON, Jun 24 2010 (IPS) - Eventually, the oil spewing from the ruptured well of BP’s Deepwater Horizon offshore rig will stop. And some time after that the bulk of the mess will be cleaned up. By then, though, the amount of damage done to the Gulf of Mexico may be catastrophic – but will we know just how catastrophic?

Extensive studies will be needed to determine the extent of the damage from the massive oil leak, say scientists, and the aftermath of past spills shows there is a spotty record of those studies actually being done. This time, they hope, it will be different.

In fact, with enough funding and public outcry, some scientists are confident that this oil disaster will produce one of the most informative and useful bodies of research on oil spill impacts ever.

“All over the world, whenever major oil spills happen, everybody, all in a flurry, goes and starts studying and they study for usually about a year. But once the spill is stopped and everything is cleaned up, most of the funding stops. That’s why we don’t have – hardly anywhere in the world – any really good, say, ten-year studies of major oil spills and what they did,” said Wes Tunnel, a biologist with the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University in Corpus Christi.

“Sometimes people go back every five years, 10 years, maybe 20 years and look at some of the big places but we don’t have any ecosystem-wide studies to tell us [what happened]. And it’s a real shame. I hope and think that it may be changed with this spill,” he told IPS.

There are signs that it may indeed change. On May 24, BP announced it would create an independent Gulf Research Initiative to fund projects studying “the impact of the Deepwater Horizon incident, and its associated response, on the environment and public health in the Gulf of Mexico”. They committed 500 million dollars to the initiative.

On Jun. 15, the first allocations of the money were announced with several universities around the gulf region to receive a combined 25 million dollars in funding. The remaining funds are expected to be allocated over the next 10 years.

Tunnel sees a lot of potential in this fund: “With this 500 million that BP has put up for the next 10 years, if that works out like they’re saying, this could be one of the best studied spills ever.”

The previously-worst Gulf of Mexico oil spill was largely a missed opportunity for scientists. After Pemex’s Ixtoc I rig exploded in the southwestern gulf in 1979, releasing around 140 million U.S. gallons of crude over 290 days, there was the typical flurry of interest, but then the funding dried up. This led to a surprising dearth of published studies on that disaster’s impacts.

“Washington pulled all our funding after we had our initial projects done,” Tunnel recounts. “That’s pretty normal.”

The one exception to this normal pattern in which funding drops off when heightened public interest drops off was the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989.

After a tanker leaked 40.9 million litres of oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound, the public outcry was so great that numerous studies were done of its effect on wildlife and ecosystems – and some of those studies continue today.

Of course, points out Tunnel, much of that was forced by litigation.

Still, says Thomas Shirley, also of the Harte Research Institute, “For all the bad things [Exxon Valdez] did, it generated a huge amount of biological knowledge.”

He says the current spill “will no doubt fund lots more…a lot of knowledge will come out of this.”

Assessing a unique disaster

Shirley has studied the long-term effects of the Exxon Valdez spill first-hand, and the lessons that came out of that spill do not bode well for the outcome of the Deepwater Horizon spill.

“There are still 21,000 gallons of oil in Prince William Sound – you can stick your hand in it. It’s under the rocks, but it’s there,” said Shirley. He says there are many species that have not yet fully recovered.

But, there, the oil remained on the surface of the water, which made it much easier both to clean up and to measure.

Even the under-studied Ixtoc spill occurred in only 46 metres of water. The Deepwater Horizon leak is at 1,524 metres. This depth, plus the unprecedented amount of chemical dispersants sprayed on the oil, makes the spill something unique.

“We’ve never faced an oil spill of this magnitude. We never faced these oil plumes. We don’t know how all this is going to play out,” Shirley said.

Further complicating the picture are findings that Shirley, along with 139 other scientists from 15 countries, released in spring 2009. As part of an inventory of the flora and fauna of the Gulf of Mexico, the researchers found that the area around the ruptured Deepwater Horizon well is home to the greatest number of species of any area of a similar depth in the gulf.

“It was very surprising,” said Shirley. “This area is truly the hotspot for the deep Gulf of Mexico based on our current explorations.”

So far, the impacts on that wildlife have only been sporadically visible, but much more damage may be below the sea’s surface, and many dead animals will sink to the bottom. “Even for those carcasses that do wash up, it will be hard to tell whether they died due to oil-related causes,” he said. “We don’t really know how much oil is down there – but we know there will be effects.”

Future studies could make those effects more visible, and though hopes for the gulf ecosystem emerging unscathed are still dim, hopes remain high that this disaster will produce a wealth of information on how oil affects wildlife in the gulf and elsewhere.

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