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This article is from the In-Depth Report Containing and Cleaning Up the Deepwater Oil Rig Disaster

Flood of oil, drought of research

Scientists frustrated as questions about the Gulf of Mexico oil spill go unanswered.

By Mark Schrope

With oil still gushing from an offshore well in the Gulf of Mexico, some scientists and environmentalists worry that US federal agencies have not done enough to gather precious data on the spill, now into its second month. The information could help efforts to contain the effects of the disaster and, in the longer term, "ensure we have the best underlying science to guide our response to the next spill," says Ira Leifer, a chemical engineer at the Marine Sciences Institute at the University of California, Santa Barbara. "And it is a foregone conclusion that there will be other significant oil spills."

The US government and energy company BP--which owns the well and carries the liability for the spill--have already drawn criticism for the lack of a credible estimate of how much oil is spewing into waters less than 70 kilometers from the Louisiana coast. Now, researchers are expressing concerns over the limited science being done in and around affected areas.

The lead agency for spill-related scientific issues, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), is responsible for advising BP and the U.S. Coast Guard, which is directing the federal response, and for assessing the effects of the spill. Much of NOAA's work has focused on gathering data about the floating oil slick to feed into models that predict how it will spread. That task is becoming increasingly urgent as oil enters the Loop Current, a forerunner of the Gulf Stream that could carry the oil to Florida and the Atlantic Ocean. Doug Helton, NOAA's incident operations coordinator in the Emergency Response Division, says that nearly all of his 110 employees are focused on spill work and retired staff members have even been called in to help.

Jeffrey Short, an environmental chemist with the advocacy group Oceana in Washington, D.C., says that in past disasters, a surface focus has been effective. But the 1.5-kilometer depth of the spill, and signs that substantial amounts of oil may be trapped far below the surface, make this a special case. "It's difficult for NOAA to marshal the resources to do a thorough job of charting what the impacts are," says Short, who worked for NOAA for more than 30 years and was a leader in the effort to assess damages from the Exxon Valdez spill. "But it's especially difficult when weird things happen to catch the scientific community by surprise. That's clearly the case here."

Researchers fear that opportunities to gather valuable data have already been lost. Thomas Shirley, a marine biologist at Texas A&M University in Corpus Christi, says that tissue samples from a wide range of animal groups are needed to act as a baseline against which future samples can be compared to gauge short-term effects and predict future damage. It may already be too late to get the most useful data, says Shirley, because so many animals have been exposed to oil. Other researchers say that important physical and chemical data are needed, including changes in salinity, dissolved organic-matter content, oxygen and methane concentrations and the consumption rate of oil by microbes. These would all help to establish a profile of the transformation under way in waters near the spill. A deployment of current meters at depth would provide valuable information to modellers trying to predict how subsurface plumes of oil will spread.

Helton says that although NOAA recognizes many research needs, it has to give priority to research activities that can directly help to reduce damage. "There are answers we need tomorrow and there are answers we need next month," he says.

Even those with close ties to NOAA say that it is hard to tell what science the agency has done so far. Short says the silence is a significant problem. "It's turning into a PR disaster, because people have legitimate fears and questions that aren't being addressed." David Valentine, a geochemist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who is calling for methane measurements to establish the size of the spill, agrees. "It seems to me that scientists from NOAA and other federal agencies are not being allowed to speak."

In response to questions about what research is under way, NOAA's director of communications, Justin Kenney, says, "We have to be careful about what we are saying and how we are saying it because there's an ongoing investigation into this spill."

On May 15, NOAA announced that the research vessel Gordon Gunter had been redeployed to spill response and was providing "information for oil spill related research." But more recent details from NOAA say that the vessel was conducting fish-larvae research in the western Gulf of Mexico that was planned before the spill but will provide information helpful in understanding the effects of the spill. It was back in port this week. Another NOAA ship, the Thomas Jefferson, is scheduled to perform measurements related to currents.

Meanwhile, NOAA has funded work by private and university vessels and there are other non-NOAA platforms that could be used in the Gulf, including autonomous underwater gliders from the Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) of the University of Washington in Seattle that can gather data for months at a time. Craig Lee, an oceanographer with the group, says that earlier this month BP requested that the APL bring two vehicles to the Gulf and made a verbal commitment to support the work, but the company later reneged. "BP appears to have lost all interest in the investigation," says Lee.

For its part, BP announced a $500-million pledge this week to support independent research into the effect of the oil spill on marine ecosystems. Among the topics listed for funding are studies that address how "accidental releases of oil compare to natural seepage from the seabed." But because the commitment is over 10 years, it might take some time before the funding works its way to the front lines of the spill. The National Science Foundation is also funding a number of academic research projects in the Gulf through its grants for rapid-response research. The foundation has already received more than 40 applications for funding, nearly half of which it has agreed to support. Although the foundation does not support monitoring per se, many of these projects will provide information helpful to tracking and understanding the spill.

A larger and more concerted research effort will be required though, says Helton. "But you're talking about running a multimillion-dollar research project and ramping up overnight," he says, "that's tough."

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