Science-based decision making and the gulf oil disaster

By Alisha A. Renfro, Ph.D., Staff Scientist, National Wildlife Federation

On April 20, 2010, a blowout of BP’s Macondo well, just 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana, began the largest marine oil spill in U.S. history. For more than 80 days, oil spewed from the well into the deep and dark waters of the Gulf of Mexico, quickly spreading to mid-depths and to the surface. While this disaster resulted in the mobilization of an unprecedented amount of resources to address the environmental emergency, in many cases, the experience and response methods used in other oil spills were found to be ineffective or impossible to apply in this case. An article in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, “Science in support of the Deepwater Horizon response,” examines the federal agency coordination and response to this spill as well as the many valuable lessons learned that should be applied to future events.

Scientists collect Gulf of Mexico oil samples for study of the oil’s degradation process. Credit: George Wardlaw (National Science Foundation).

The size and complexity of the BP oil spill presented unprecedented challenges to federal and academic scientists. For the response and cleanup efforts, scientists needed real-time scientific data, from determining the flow rate of oil from the well to tracking and predicting where oil would surface to assessing the effects the oil and dispersant had on species and habitats throughout the gulf ecosystem. This spill also pushed scientists to use existing scientific methods in fresh ways and to develop new methods to help answer important questions. In addition, the National Science Foundation awarded more than $10 million through their Rapid Response program to scientific research that focused on various aspects of the oil spill.

This tragic event highlighted several important science priorities that are crucial for future oil spill response preparedness, including gathering adequate baseline data in at-risk regions, filling in information gaps about the biological effects of oil, collecting data to understand the cost of an oil spill to the impacted region and the nation and conducting more research on the impacts of dispersants on different types of species at various life stages. In the case of the BP oil disaster, scientists are now trying to answer these questions in hindsight, which can lead to further damage to the environment, the health of the workers involved in the cleanup efforts and the recovery of the ecosystem.

As oil and gas exploration pushes into deeper and deeper waters, it is imperative that we take steps to safeguard the ecosystems at risk. While everyone hopes that an event like the gulf oil spill doesn’t happen again, we need to not only be prepared for the possibility of it happening again, but we also need to be prepared to respond to it better. More than 1,000 days since the start of the spill, the gulf is still waiting to be made whole.