By Amanda Mascarelli
Plans to distribute monies from BP's 10-year Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GRI) have been thrown into turmoil by a last-minute edict from the White House.
On June 15, BP announced that it would distribute $25 million in fast-track funding across three research institutions in its first step towards fulfilling a $500-million pledge for high-priority studies to assess environmental damage from the oil spill.
BP had planned to put out a request for proposals for the remaining $475 million within days of the announcement and said that large-scale research centers would be established as part of its mission.
But on June 16, the White House issued a vaguely worded statement that could slow the effort. The press release said that BP would consult with "governors, and state and local environmental and health authorities" to design its long-term monitoring program within the research initiative.
This has left the future of the initiative uncertain, even to members of an independent advisory panel of six scientists that the company had set up to evaluate research proposals and decide how the remaining funds would be divided up. The panel includes Rita Colwell, a former director of the U.S. National Science Foundation, and the agency's former assistant director for geosciences Margaret Leinen. On the details of what the program will entail, Leinen says, "I really am not in a position to talk about it--and I don't think any of us are."
Researchers say that the government mandate could stall the process considerably. "It makes sense to coordinate the Gulf of Mexico research initiative with efforts that are already under way," says Jeffrey Short, an environmental chemist with Oceana, a marine conservation organization based in Washington, D.C. "But it will be difficult to achieve that coordination in a timely manner. The bureaucratic hurdles are formidable."
BP spokeswoman Elizabeth Ashford says that the company will follow through with its initial $25-million commitment. This will be used to establish the interactions between oil, dispersants and the environment, and the ecological conditions on the Gulf Coast before the accident. "The idea was always that this would be independent from BP," says Ashford. "All of that intention is still there. But we do need and intend to be responsive to the White House."