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USF Researchers, Colleagues Detail Past, Current, Future Research on 5th Anniversary of Gulf Oil Spill

Marine scientists present their findings and discuss remaining questions about the oil spill.

Video by Katy Hennig | USF News

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (April 20, 2015) – The University of South Florida’s College of Marine Science, the Florida Institute of Oceanography (FIO) and other colleagues marked the fifth anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on Monday by discussing their past, present and future research into the 2010 event.

The USF College of Marine Science and FIO – a consortium of private and public marine research interests in Florida hosted by USF – have been at the forefront of the Deepwater Horizon research since the blowout of the BP-run well on April 20, 2010. USF scientists were among the first independent researchers to venture into the spill zone, and identified two massive underwater plumes of oil and dispersant particles which remain central to understanding the impact on the Gulf’s health today.

USF’s College of Marine Science has received more than $33 million in research grants related to the spill over the last five years and has led an international coalition of scientists to examine all aspects of the spill and its impact on the complex Gulf ecosystem called C-IMAGE. The research continues under a $20 million grant from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative awarded last year.

The Florida Institute of Oceanography, which was among the first organizations to receive $10 million funding for spill-related science in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, has been designated as the Florida Gulf Coast entity to receive and to competitively distribute a portion of the fines collected from the spill to support scientific research.

Frequently Asked Questions and Answers - provided and responded to by the C-Image Consortium

How would you characterize the recovery of the Gulf from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill after 5 years?

Recovery of the Gulf is probably most accurately characterized as “uneven”. While some ecosystems and species have recovered from the impacts of the spill, a significant quantity of the oil remains in the environment, resulting in long-term exposure. In particular, large quantities of the DWH oil exist in about a 1,000 square mile area in deep waters near the rig, at the “toe” of many northern Gulf beaches, in the form of tar patties and tar balls.  Some also exists in the coastal marshes, especially in Louisiana. Short-lived, widely distributed, and migratory species have recovered faster than long-lived, sedentary ones that were in the path of the spill.

BP recently released a report titled “Gulf of Mexico Environmental Recovery and Restoration”.  Do you agree with their findings?

The BP report summarizes a number of important facts regarding the fate of the oil and ecosystem impacts. However, the report is incomplete in that it does not review important published findings on impacts on a number of species (e.g., fishes) and the evidence for considerable DWH oil still in deep marine waters near the rig location. The effects of the DWH oil spill will be recognizable for decades to come.

Should the public be concerned about eating Gulf seafood?

Evidence to date suggests not. There is no evidence of oil-tainted seafood reaching any markets nor any confirmed reports of anyone eating contaminated seafood that subsequently became sick. This is due to the extensive closures and seafood monitoring of federal and state agencies. There is a concern regarding people that eat large quantities of seafood as a subsistence diet, but standards for seafood consumption generally have a large safety factor built into them.

How much oil remains in the Gulf?  Where is it? 

It is difficult to estimate accurately how much of the oil from DWH remains in the environment. Some published estimates indicate that 4 to perhaps as much as 30% of the oil rests in deep waters on the sediment there, although 10% is probably a useful estimate.  This oil is degraded to its heaviest components. This oil reached the bottom due to an oiled marine snow event and resulted from deep oil plumes washing up against the steep walls of the DeSoto Canyon. Still more oil exists in the coastal areas in the form of tar patties and tar balls, that can be seen washed ashore during storms. An undetermined quantity still exists in coastal marshes, particularly in Louisiana. 

Are we better prepared to respond to a massive oil spill like Deepwater Horizon than we were in 2010?

Yes. It is clear that the Coast Guard, NOAA, USGS, EPA and the oil industry learned a considerable amount from the DWH spill about how to organize the spill response within the jurisdiction of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. However, it is unlikely that the exact spill scenario next time will be exactly like Deepwater Horizon, Exxon Valdez or any other previous spill. The response needs to be nimble and to use non-traditional assets like the academic community which was energized during the DWH spill, and organized under GoMURC and GoMRI thereafter.

Is it just too risky to drill and produce oil one to two miles below the surface of the ocean?

Drilling in two mile water depths with additional drilling sub-bottom to reach oil bearing formations is inherently very risky. The techniques for deep drilling were adapted from those in shallower waters, but the safety culture has not necessarily kept pace. The industry has developed new generations of blowout preventers that should help.  However, not all aspects of drilling at such pressures and low temperatures can be anticipated. There are ways to minimize the risks even more including drilling simultaneous relief wells (as has been considered in Canada and the UK).  As a society we need to carefully evaluate the risks and rewards of such risky propositions.

In retrospect, was it wise to allow the use of massive quantities of dispersants to fight the DWH spill?

It is still unclear if using such a large quantity (1.8 million gallons) of dispersants, in the conditions they were applied, was – on balance - a good idea. The theory of dispersant use is to make large oil droplets into small ones that are more easily digested by bacteria and other microbes. The use of dispersants injected at the well head was done to encourage the formation of sub-surface plumes of fine droplets that would never get to the surface.  It remains unclear if and by how much the dispersant use helped form such plumes. They existed in deep waters before the dispersants were applied there and modeling and laboratory work since then – which remains controversial – suggests minimal additional plume formation due to dispersants. However, dispersant use may have aided the formation of the “dirty blizzard” which helped sink oil into the deep water and prevent it from washing into marshes and other highly sensitive environments.

What is the status of the BP trial under the Clean Water Act?

The trial of BP in Federal Court (Louisiana) represents charges against the company under the Federal Clean Water Act, and other statutes stemming from the DWH accident. There are three phases to the trial: (1) the first segment was to determine if was the accident the result of “gross” negligence. Judge Barbier found that BP was guilty of “gross” negligence. (2) The second phase of the trial determined that BP was responsible for 3.19 million barrels of oil entering the environment. (3) The third phase of the trial will determine the exact penalty (to a maximum of $13.7 billion), which has yet to be announced.

Where does C-IMAGE funding come from? 

The C-IMAGE consortium of institutions was awarded $11.1 million to fund research in 2012-2014, and an additional $20.2 million to fund research in 2015-2017. The source of the funds is the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI). GoMRI is an independent research entity chaired by Dr. Rita Colwell. A total of $500 million was granted by BP to GoMRI, to be spent over 10 years.

Is there adequate pre-spill baseline data for measuring the impacts of oil spills in the Gulf?

No.  Despite the presence of about 4,000 marine oil and gas production facilities in the Gulf – and thousands of miles of pipelines there, there is no systematic collection of baseline pollution levels around these facilities. This makes assigning the impacts of a spill such as DWH more difficult. It is imperative that more robust baseline data on contamination in sediments, water and biota be collected to assess the implications of future spills.

Who should pay for baseline assessments and ongoing monitoring of the Gulf?

It is a political decision as to whom should pay for baseline studies of the Gulf to help ascertain pollution from large or small spills. However, the federal lands upon which oil and gas production facilities lie are a public resource, from which the industry derives private benefit (in addition to paying lease royalties and taxes). The general principal with respect to pollution related issues is that “the user pays”.

With the low cost of oil now isn’t it just too big a financial burden on the industry to collect baseline information?

At the current price of oil (about $50/barrel) profitability of the offshore oil industry is marginal due to the high cost of production. However, given the extreme financial risk of a spill of the magnitude of DWH to the operator and the US government, it seems prudent to invest funds in baselines now which could minimize liability in the future (much like insurance).

Are the academic communities, industry and government agencies working better and in a coordinated manner to assist in oil spill response?

Yes. As a result of the DWH accident and lessons learned from that accident, there are a number of improvements in the working relationships among government, academia and the industry. Two important developments regard the organization of the academic community. The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI, funded through a grant from BP) has stimulated a large community of researchers and students that have doubtlessly resulted in a better prepared community of researchers capable of responding to the next large spill in the Gulf and elsewhere. Funding under the federal RESTORE Act likewise is funding “Centers of Excellence” in each state, and the national Academy of Sciences will fund a 30 year program of oil spill related research. Finally, the Gulf of Mexico University Research Collaborative (GoMURC) now exists to coordinate the activities of over 60 academic institutions in the advent of another major spill.

Don’t we already know what we need to know to regulate the industry and respond to oil spills?

No. There are many issues of extreme importance to oil spill response that remain unresolved. These include the efficacy of the use of dispersants applied at the well head of a marine blowout in deep waters. Additionally, little is known about the interactions between water depth and the specific type of oil in terms of hydrate formation and efficiency of dispersants.

What are the added risks of drilling in the Arctic? Or on the Atlantic seaboard? 

Drilling in the Arctic is complicated by a number of critical factors related to the harshness of the environment there. The area of the Chukchi Sea that is now proposed for drilling is only ice free about two months of the year and is subject to grounding by ice, and extremes in winds, waves and currents. As well, there are few port facilities in the Arctic capable of servicing an oil spill response similar to the one mounted for DWH. As well, there are many marine resources in the area vital to subsistence hunting and fishing that could be harmed by a marine spill. The Atlantic Seaboard is generally a more extreme area – weatherwise – and thus is probably more risk prone to accidents than is the Gulf of Mexico.

Because the majority of the 4000 wells in the NGoM were installed over 20 years old and many date back to the 1970s (over 40 years ago), at a time when offshore drilling was less regulated, who is responsible to clean up potential problems if any of the existing 4000 wells leak slowly or catastrophically? 

The Oil Pollution Act (OPA) of 1990 clearly assigns clean-up costs to the operator of such facilities if they can be held accountable. If not the OPA maintains the Oil Pollution Liability Trust Fund to clean up pollution, for subsequent billing if that can be done.

Also, Because many of those 4000 wells are owned and operated by small exploration and/or production companies that do not have Billions in resources like BP or other large oil companies, who would be responsible to seal a runaway blowout and do the environmental cleanup if the small company were to declare bankruptcy?

Same answer - The Oil Pollution Act (OPA) of 1990 clearly assigns clean-up costs to the operator of such facilities if they can be held accountable. If not the OPA maintains the Oil Pollution Liability Trust Fund to clean up pollution, for subsequent billing if that can be done.

In the event of a catastrophic accident for deep water petroleum exploration and production well located next to an international boarder, what bi-lateral agreements have been established to seal a runaway blowout  and to conduct environmental cleanup (across boarders)?   

The USA, Mexico, the Bahamas, and Cuba have been collaborating with the US Coast Guard to establish contingency plans and conduct planning exercises in the advent of a significant cross-boundary accident.

Should drilling be allowed along the West Florida coastline?

This is a matter of balancing the risk to the coastal economy of Florida with the potential benefit from such activities. It is unlikely that recoverable quantities of oil (perhaps some gas) exist over the broad West Florida Shelf (from the coast to about 150 miles offshore), so the proposition is really moot. However, there are probably higher prospects for oil and gas at the edge of the continental shelf in very deep water there.  However, these water depths are swept by the strong Loop Current which transports water from the northwest to the southeast through the Florida Straits. A significant oil spill there would be transported quickly around Florida.


To learn more about the research visit:

 Florida Institute of Oceanography; C-IMAGE and the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative.

Media Resources:

Photos and video of research being conducted in the Gulf are available for download here: 

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