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Science War Room Needed for BP Oil Catastrophe

Experienced Science Leadership Needed to Cope with Crisis

Obama in the situation room with top science agency leaders. SOURCE: AP Photo/Pete Souz President Barack Obama receives a briefing in the Situation Room of the White House on the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico with top administrators of the Department of Energy, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Coast Guard, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of the Interior.

The explosion of BP’s Deepwater Horizon exploratory rig on April 20, and the ensuing deep-sea gusher of oil and methane into the Gulf of Mexico is now one of the greatest environmental tragedies in the history of the United States. Much of the devastation is evident, from the 11 men killed in the explosion to the sea turtles caught in oily sludge. Yet the scope of BP’s ecological crimes is still a mystery, requiring an unprecedented scientific effort to study where the oil has reached—from the bayous of Louisiana to the beaches of Florida—and what effect it is having on ecosystems, public health, and the economy. Columns of oil and dispersant are hidden beneath the waves, and columns of smoke have risen into the air from oil slicks burned at the surface.

President Barack Obama appointed former U.S. Navy Secretary and former Mississippi Governor Ray Mabus to “restore the unique beauty and bounty of this region.” Mabus’s task demands the full resources of the scientific community of the gulf region, as well as specialists from around the globe. What’s more, British oil giant BP will be held liable for damages resulting from the spill, but many of these damages will require scientific research in order to understand and quantify. Without coordinated leadership from the government, the ecosystems and communities of the gulf may be suffering damages without reparation for years.

To meet this challenge, the administration must establish a clearinghouse for gulf region science as soon as possible, led by a scientific leader like Dr. John Holdren, the Presidential Science Adviser, Dr. Jane Lubchenco, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Director, or Dr. Subra Suresh, the incoming director of the National Science Foundation. This effort must have a clear sense of urgency, with flexibility for rapid response. In the words of Sustainable Ecosystems Institute director Deborah Brosnan, we need a “science war room” for the Gulf of Mexico, including “ecologists, wildlife biologists, oceanographers, fisheries scientists, toxicologists and ecological economists.”

This gulf research war room should be an interagency effort, including NOAA, the Department of Interior (National Park Service, U.S. Geological Survey, and Fish & Wildlife Service), Environmental Protection Agency, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Department of Energy, NASA, and state agencies. The initial actions of the federal government to comprehend this catastrophe are a good foundation for such a coordinated effort:

Funding research: The National Science Foundation has taken the lead in soliciting academic research on the BP spill, requesting proposals for grants from its Rapid Response Research program on May 27. Since then, NSF has already awarded 44 grants worth nearly $5 million. Funding for this national priority should be multiplied at least a hundredfold and billed to BP. Program leadership should rapidly and transparently establish a strategic mission and a process for utilizing the best science to direct remediation efforts.

Data publication: The government has begun the effort of compiling and publishing the reams of scientific data relevant to the BP disaster online. Data.Gov/restorethegulf links to dozens of datasets and agency websites. GeoPlatform.Gov/gulfresponse includes multiple layers of geospatial data. All the data being collected by the government, BP contractors, and the academic community on this disaster should be brought together as rapidly and transparently as possible.

Scientific symposia: The government has begun convening scientific symposia on the BP spill. On May 27, Environmental Protection Agency, NOAA, and the University of New Hampshire Coastal Response Research Center convened a meeting to “study dispersant use and ecosystem impacts of dispersed oil.” NOAA, NSF, U.S. Geological Survey, and the Consortium for Ocean Leadership (a group of oceanographic institutions) held an emergency Gulf Oil Spill Scientific Symposium on June 2 and 3 at Louisiana State University. Lubchenco outlined the work NOAA is conducting, as did USGS director Marcia McNutt. Clear lines of inquiry should be established for future conferences, and much greater outreach needs to be made to the scientific community.

One of the most critical roles for the gulf research war room will be the long-term monitoring of health impacts of this toxic event. Center for American Progress health experts Ellen-Marie Whelan and Lesley Russell recommend that the Department of Health and Human Services assistant secretary for health “be designated to launch and oversee the coordinated response plan implemented whenever a situation arises that can threaten public health.” The assistant secretary  “would have responsibility for ensuring—in conjunction with other federal, state, and local agencies, academics, and the private sector—that needed services are delivered and information is collected, and that data, information, and resources are transferred to the responsible HHS agency or agencies.”

In the wake of the Exxon-Valdez disaster, criticism was leveled against the oil company and the federal response for ignoring the need to do long-term monitoring of health effects of the toxic spill. The government should learn from these mistakes.

The leader of this public effort must face the challenging but critical task of resolving conflicts with the scientific investigations now enmeshed with the foreign oil giant BP. As established by the 1990 Oil Pollution Act, BP is liable for any damages to public natural resources, and government officials are now working with BP contractors on the natural resource damage assessment process, as required by 15 CFR 990.14(c). But quantifying exactly what those damages are will require unbiased scientific research.

BP is hiring as many scientists as possible to join its private contractor army and influence the research. The U.S. government must move quickly to protect the integrity of this process.

How quickly? Well, BP already is doling out grants from its $500 million Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative, a Tobacco Institute-like program managed by a BP-picked panel to disburse scientific research grants in the coming years. In an environment of declining federal funding for the sciences, many research institutions have become dependent on private sources of financing to fund their research, and many are clamoring to get a piece of BP’s money. Louisiana State University, University of Florida’s Florida Institute of Oceanography, and Mississippi State University’s Northern Gulf Institute have already accepted $10 million each.

Currently, there is no mechanism to ensure that this BP-funded research remains impartial to the interests of the funder. In a foreshadowing of future conflicts, the Obama administration stands accused of “political intervention” for attempting to establish even moderate oversight over BP’s private slush fund. BP’s emerging control of the science behind its own natural resource damage assessment and resulting liability stinks of the same self-regulation that helped cause this disaster in the first place. It is the responsibility of the federal government to act on behalf of the public good and protect the integrity and transparency of the science surrounding the gulf disaster.

The Senate should take note of this pressing need as they debate a new oil regulation package over the coming week.

Brad Johnson is the Think Progress Climate Editor at the Center for American Progress.

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