September 30, 2010

Scientists Battle For Gulf Oil Spill Research Funds

This summer's BP oil spill has turned the Gulf of Mexico region into a scientific gold rush, with more than half a billion dollars in research funding now up for grabs, the Associated Press (AP) reported on Wednesday. 

The environmental disaster has presented a rare opportunity for scientists to receive both funding and media exposure, with researchers now suddenly in high demand. 

More than 100 are now on the job, the new agency reported, including nearly 50 scientists that BP has hired to help defend itself from legal action. The federal government, environmental activists and attorneys suing BP have also hired scientists.

The focus on studying the spill and its affects has triggered more than 165 proposed studies registered through a federal clearinghouse, resulting in scarce availability of critical supplies such as boats.

"We've never had this many research vessels concentrated in the Gulf at any one time "” never," said Larry McKinney, director of Gulf of Mexico studies at Texas A&M University in Corpus Christi.

"It's been a flat-out crazy time," he told AP.

A White House science office request will bring scientists studying the spill from around the country to Florida on Oct. 5 to discuss research coordination and priorities.  The Gulf states are also expected to complete an agreement in the coming weeks on how to distribute the $500 million in BP-pledged research money over the next ten years.

The Gulf of Mexico has received relatively little federal research support in the past.

"It's the hardest working of our ocean basins, but it's the most underfunded in terms of research monitoring and science," AP quoted Florida State University oceanographer Ian MacDonald as saying.

The BP oil spill appears to have changed much of that.

Biologist Eric Hoffmayer of the University of Southern Mississippi's Gulf Coast Research Laboratory is among the researchers who have secured funding as a result of the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.

"There's multiple sources of funding out there. You just have to know how to tap into it," he told AP.

Two major types of research are underway.  One involves basic inquiries into issues such as where the oil has gone and its implications for the ecosystem and public health.  Those areas of research are where BP has pledged to spend $500 million, with findings to be made available to the public.

The other type of research supports the federal government's natural resource damage assessment, or NRDA, and is part of the legal battle that will ultimately determine how much BP must pay for restoration.

Both sides have hired experts for the NRDA process, and have sworn them to secrecy.

"It is standard practice to ask such a litigation expert to maintain the confidentiality of communications with legal counsel," said BP spokesman Tom Mueller.

Similarly, the government may keep some data in this process under wraps, said Steve Murawski, chief fisheries scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

NOAA has 17 damage assessment teams working the spill, Murawski told AP.

Under the 1990 oil spill law enacted after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, both sides hire scientists, economists and attorneys and gather data in a legal process aimed at reimbursing the public for loss of natural resources.

Billions of dollars are at stake in the battle, and the case is expected to continue for years.

However, scientists say the legal battle is only a small part of the ongoing research.  Rather, it is the general research funding, including BP's half a billion dollars, that scientists are primarily seeking. The only condition from BP is that "the data is shared publicly when the results are in," Mueller said.

Researchers and several Universities have also confirmed this.

"At one point I was sorely tempted to give the money back because frankly I didn't want the sea lab associated with BP money," said Dauphin Island Sea Lab director George Crozier.

However, he accepted the money when he learned there were no strings attached, he told AP.

To date, $40 million of it has been distributed to four large academic institutions in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida and the National Institutes of Health.  In Florida, 233 proposals competed for $10 million in grants, 27 of which received funding.

The Gulf of Mexico Alliance, a consortium of state officials, is establishing a more permanent process for distributing the remaining $460 million from BP.

Some say additional funding is required.

"I don't think $50 million a year is enough to study the problem as we know the scope of it," Murawski said.

Environmental groups are also getting involved in the matter. Greenpeace sent its 164-foot research ship Arctic Sunrise for a three-month tour of the Gulf, where it is hosting university scientists for a number of spill-related studies and gathering water samples.

The competition for funding has created somewhat of a geographical division, with Gulf-region scientists saying they should receive the bulk of the funding because they are most familiar with the area and have been shortchanged in the past.

Those from elsewhere say the grants should be awarded on the basis of merit and the worthiness of their study proposals.

"It's in our backyard," said William Hawkins, director of Southern Mississippi's Gulf Coast lab.

Many Gulf-state scientists think, "this is our time, this is our spill," he told AP.

There's a sense of urgency behind the quest for funding, since a shortage of vessels and poor access to the spill area meant scientists were unable to obtain measurements before, during and after the spill to see how the ecosystem changed.
Now, with each passing day the oil is becoming more difficult to locate.

"This is like trying to do forensic work on a very old crime scene "” the murder occurred months ago, the body's decayed and animals walked off with the rest," said Chris D'Elia, dean of Louisiana State University's School of the Coast and the Environment.


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