Scientists urge U.S. to move quickly to study Gulf oil spill

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 8, 2010 

WASHINGTON — Frustrated with limited data on the BP oil gusher, a group of independent scientists has proposed a large experiment that would give a clearer understanding of where the oil and gas are going and where they'll do the most damage.

The scientists say their mission must be undertaken immediately, before BP kills the runaway well. They propose using what's probably the world's worst oil accident to learn how crude oil and natural gas move through water when they're released at high volumes from the deep sea.

The scientists also want to see how the oil breaks down into toxic and safer components in different ocean conditions, information that would help predict which ocean species are most at risk. The experiment also could provide data that would help in dealing with any future spills.

"Without this understanding, we're no better off when the next one occurs," said Ira Leifer, a researcher at the Marine Science Institute of the University of California at Santa Barbara who's leading the team that's proposed the experiment.

Since the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded and sank into the Gulf of Mexico in late April, more than 200 million gallons of oil have gushed from the blown well. McClatchy reported last Friday, however, that many experts say the overall scientific evaluation of the spill is surprisingly uncoordinated, and that federal officials and BP have failed to mount a speedy, focused inquiry to understand its impact.

The plan calls for about two weeks of experiments with two research vessels and robotic vehicles at a cost of $8.4 million. The scientist would use monitoring equipment and sampling to conduct experiments at various levels in the water column.

Leifer said BP should pay for it, or the federal government should pay and send BP the bill.

The choice is really up to BP, he said.

"You can either let science happen and everyone wins, or you're going to find yourself torpedoing that. It's going to look bad in the history books when people look at it, and maybe in court," Leifer said.

Scientists from universities, oceanic institutions and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have been tracking the layers of partly dissolved oil. NOAA has six research vessels in the Gulf working on assessing the damage from the spill.

Leifer said that while those researchers were looking for where the oil was, a larger experiment was necessary to test hypotheses and learn how to make better estimates.

It's not clear whether any federal agency agrees.

The Department of Energy hasn't been approached about the project, spokeswoman Stephanie Mueller said. Leifer has prepared an 88-page technical report, and he said he could get the experiment under way quickly. It's not clear, however, whether any funding proposal could clear the necessary scientific review in time.

Leifer said he hoped that BP would see it as in its own interest to fund the study.

BP didn't respond to queries.

Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., wrote to BP on June 10 asking for funding for a simpler, earlier version of Leifer's plan. Markey said through a spokesman that it "could help answer some of the fundamental questions about this catastrophe and help us prepare should there be a next one. It is worth serious consideration by BP."

Leifer's team is made up of 15 experts on oil and gas in the ocean. He and some of the others also worked on the federal government's Flow Rate Technical Group, which was formed to get a better estimate of the size of the disaster. Leifer said the group did the best it could with limited data provided by BP. The latest official estimate is that 35,000 to 60,000 barrels a day are flowing from the runaway well.

Leifer's proposed experiment could help improve the estimate, but because the flow amount can change over time, it would still be impossible to come up with an accurate amount, he said.

"We're trying to figure out not just how much is coming out, but where it's going," Leifer said. "The question is where is it going, why is it going there and what is it killing?"

The information also will help scientists predict what will happen when conditions change; for example, when the loop current shifts and temperatures rise.

McClatchy reported last Friday that many experts say the overall scientific evaluation of the spill is surprisingly uncoordinated, as federal officials and BP have failed to mount a speedy, focused inquiry to understand its impact.

Leifer has dubbed the new proposal "Deep Spill 2." The first Project Deep Spill was an experiment off Norway in 2000 in which mixtures of crude oil, diesel oil and natural gas were released half a mile below the surface of the ocean to simulate a blowout. The study was a joint project by the U.S. Minerals Management Service and 23 oil companies.

Leifer was part of a Department of Energy-funded experiment last summer on a natural oil seep near the Deepwater Horizon site. The earlier experiment looked at the effects of methane seeping into the atmosphere.

"We want to repeat the effort much more thoroughly, because the stakes are much higher with the oil spill," he said. "It would be inexcusable not to learn from this."

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