A Look Back at the BP Disaster

New papers by federal scientists detail the scientific challenges and lessons learned during the Gulf Oil Spill.


USF professor Steve Murawski, shown here on a recent research cruise, has been studying the impact of the oil spill on fin fishes such as red snapper and grouper. Photo: Courtesy of USF College of Marine Science/C-IMAGE.


By Vickie Chachere

USF News


ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (Dec. 3, 2012) – More than two years after the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig killed 11 workers and unleashed one of the nation’s worst environmental disasters, the federal scientists at the center of the spill are putting the challenges and lessons learned into perspective in hopes of averting a similar catastrophe in the future.


In a series of articles published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, University of South Florida Professor Steven Murawski – who served as the chief scientist for the National Marine Fisheries Services at the time of the spill – joined with other high-ranking federal scientific officials to produce the retrospective that examines the response to the epic BP oil spill. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Administrator Jane Lubchenco; U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu and U.S. Geological Service Director Marcia McNutt were among the team of scientists authoring the paper, part of a 15-article special edition of the journal devoted to the spill and published Monday.


Their findings: The scientific response to the spill produced incredible discoveries about the unique Gulf ecosystem and expanded the boundaries of technology for disaster response, but much more needs to be done in terms of research and preparation if oil companies are going to push deeper into new territories in search of fossil fuels. While the Gulf of Mexico was recognized as a vast and profitable source of oil and gas, it remains badly neglected in the resources needed to understand its complicated environment and what long-term damage the oil spill has caused.


Murawski, who now holds the Downtown Progress-Peter Betzer Endowed Chair in Biological Oceanography and is a professor of population dynamics and marine ecosystem analysis, called the papers the “capstone on the spill response” and a bold assessment of what worked – and what didn’t – in the unprecedented crisis.


“These events are rapidly fading into history and we thought it would be useful to have some perspective from the people in the trenches making the day-to-day decisions about response priorities,” Murawski said.


During the spill, Murawski worked closely with USF marine scientists who were part of an independent, academic response, bringing new information about the spill to light and challenging oil giant BP’s public assessment of the disaster. Amid the crush of national and international news reports, scientists found themselves in unchartered territory: attempting to explain what was occurring in the Gulf as normally behind-the-scenes science unfolded in the glaring public spotlight.


Complicating the response was what Murawski describes as “decades of poor to non-existent” scientific baseline information on the Gulf that now hinders assessment of the spill’s impact. For example, his research into a surge of diseases among fin fishes is complicated because the baseline data on fish exposed to pollution before the spill amounts to one small study done in the mid-1990s. The Gulf of Mexico – with more than 4,000 active oil wells - is considered one of the least-funded and most under-studied bodies of water in the world and the nation.


Murawski said on any given day at the height of the spill, more than a dozen scientific issues – from calculating how much oil was gushing from the well to the formation of deep-sea plumes of dispersed oil to air hazards and seafood safety – would demand attention from the responders.


“There wasn’t enough capacity to deal with all those things in any one agency or even a collection of agencies,” Murawski said. “That’s why it was so important to bring in the academic community.


“…There was no playbook for these things. People jumped in and scraped up money where they could. A lot of these efforts that occurred were not as coordinated as they could have been – but as a shotgun approach.”


Now in retrospect, the scientific community lauds its rocky but productive response. Scientists from all levels are now working together in massive research projects related to the spills and Gulf restoration efforts are being led by sound science communicated to the public with more speed and clarity than before. USF is leading a three-year, $11 million international effort called C-IMAGE (Center for Integrated Modeling and Analysis of Gulf Ecosystems) examining the multiple dimensions of the spill’s impact on the Gulf.


New technologies and applications that grew out of the spill – for example scientists discovered that measuring air quality around oil spills could produce data that helps estimate the flow rate of sub-sea well ruptures – are being refined to become the new state-of-the-art response.


And there is a long list of lessons to be learned. Among them, Murawski said:


·         The importance of preparedness cannot be overstated. The consequences of no or too little investment in scientific understanding and technical development in oil-producing environments have advanced little in recent decades, a serious shortcoming considering the push deeper into the Gulf and to sensitive environments, such as the Arctic.


·         The need to expand spill response capacity and conduct training exercises before spills occur that include the academic community. The Florida Institute of Oceanography recently entered into a new agreement with the U.S. Coast Guard’s 7th District to cooperate and train on spill response, but that partnership is limited in its geographic scope.


·         Better communication within the scientific community and resolving the “clash of cultures” that pits slow, methodical science that is then peer-reviewed and published against the need for immediate information to guide response and public policy decisions.


·         Better engagement with the oil and gas industry to provide better information, monitoring and to involve the industry’s significant technical and financial resources to play a role in environmental safety.

“If we had this spill tomorrow, we would still be struggling to have the capacity or an effective communications network,” Murawski noted.


What others are saying:


“While the federal family was well versed in oil response and remediation, and we brought many resources to bear, the scale and complexity of Deepwater Horizon taxed our organizations in unprecedented ways. We learned much during this extraordinary disaster and we hope the lessons learned will be implemented before and used during any future events.” – Jane Lubchenco, NOAA Administrator.


"Although we all hope 'Never again!' will there be an oil spill like the Deepwater Horizon, there will always be some risk as we move into deeper water and more difficult environments in our quest for the planet's remaining fossil fuels. A significant drawback in addressing many of the issues we confronted in Deepwater Horizon was the lack of peer-reviewed scientific publications from prior marine-well blowouts to help guide our actions; we will not make that mistake this time." – Marcia McNutt, U.S. Geological Survey Director.



“Without this level of cooperation and round-the-clock engagement by people from many disciplines, it would not have been possible to carry out the continual scientific analyses needed to ensure the well was not leaking below the sea floor once the capping stack was closed. For the government scientists onsite at BP headquarters, rapid acquisition and analysis of critical data sets and open exchange of ideas and possible outcomes was essential to ensuring the well had enough integrity to remain safely shut in until it was killed and sealed with cement.” -  Steve Hickman, USGS research geologist