Following in his footsteps? Robert Dudley walks behind outgoing BP CEO Tony Hayward (foreground) after a June meeting with President Obama in Washington. Like his predecessor, Dudley has generated fresh controversy with his recent comments about the oil spill, suggesting that BP might significantly curb its dedicated disaster response in the coming weeks (Source: Reuters)
On Wednesday morning, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) released a report stating that the risks of oil exposure to people and wildlife living near the BP spill are now low due to the rapid breakdown of leaked petroleum in the warm, turbid waters of the Gulf of Mexico. According to NOAA, nearly three-fourths of the 4.9 million barrels leaked into the Gulf have been collected, evaporated, broken down into tiny fragments, or dispersed by COREXIT and other chemicals applied by BP in its response to the spill.
This report comes on the heels of comments last week by Robert "Bob" Dudley, a BP director slated to become the company's CEO this autumn. With the well cap working and the static kill procedure on course for completionat the Deepwater Horizon site, Dudley stated that the time has come for BP to "scaleback" its cleanup efforts on the Gulf Coast.
The situation there may indeed be improving, given the huge volume of the Gulf of Mexico and recent storm activity near the Macondo well site. Still, with the massive amount of oil that spilled into the waters off coastal Louisiana and the unprecedented use of dispersants throughout the water column, might it be too early to close the curtain on this disaster?
For our first roundtable, we collected the opinions of several in-house experts at EDF.
James “Jim” Tripp is Senior Counsel for the Environmental Defense Fund and serves as a member of the Louisiana Governor’s Commission on Coastal Restoration & Conservation. He has worked on restoring coastal Louisiana's wetlands for more than three decades.
JT: If the Government's report is basically credible, then that is indeed good news. Environmentalists are often accused of being alarmists and overstating harm from some course of events. We do not want to do that. However, my interpretation of the report is that "the solution to pollution is dilution".
The Gulf of Mexico, unlike more confined bodies of water such as Prince William Sound, is huge. Five million barrels of oil dispersed through the vast Gulf would reach a very low concentration in due time.
[NOAA Administrator] Jane Lubchenco rightly points to the really serious scientific issue: what impact will low, dispersed concentrations of oil breaking down slowly at various depths have on oceanic eggs, larvae, and juveniles over the coming months and years? We must understand this in order to determine what effect, if any, the spill will have on food webs in the Gulf.
Jason Funk, Ph.D. is a conservation analyst in the Land, Water, & Wildlife (LWW) and International Climate Programs
(Click to enlarge) Miami Herald cartoonist Jim Morin illustrated his views on the health of the Gulf in an Op-Art piece published on Wednesday (Source: McClatchy)
JF: It’s definitely not time for a "scaleback", but it probably is time for a transition in terms of the cleanup activities. The need for skimming and burning will rapidly diminish, but we still need to make the affected areas and communities whole again. We need to start by collecting the data to properly document the impacts of the oil – and let’s not forget that up to 150 million gallons of oil are still out there, either as dissolved oil, dispersed oil, or oil residue. That oil hasn’t "disappeared", even if it’s no longer at the surface. I think BP should be held accountable for continuing efforts to track and document the impacts of the spill, and we should keep employing fishing boats and unemployed people to help in the assessment process. So while it may be true that we’re ending the triage stage, we need to ramp up the efforts to assess the damage to the patient, develop a diagnosis, and start administering treatment. The recovery process is really just beginning.
Steven Hamburg, Ph.D. is an ecosystem ecologist and EDF’s chief scientist
SH: The analogy that I’ve used to describe the Gulf is that it has gone from critical to stable condition, but it’s still going to take a lot of effort and a long time before it returns to health. The government report says 25% of the oil has been collected, 25% is still in the Gulf, and 50% is in the form of smaller molecules that remain biologically active. Most of these smaller molecules are still somewhere in the Gulf’s waters, and as they decompose, they will consume oxygen, which will threaten the Gulf ecosystem. In addition, even when the oil is dispersed, it remains toxic. The real challenge is continuing to undertake remediation efforts while also ensuring that a science-based, long-term monitoring and research program is established to gauge the health of the Gulf. A continuing program is key to maximizing the effectiveness of our remediation efforts. Furthermore, it will provide us with the information needed to respond to and understand oil spills if (and when) they occur in the future.
Stacy Small, Ph.D. is a wildlife ecologist specializing in bird populations
SS: The $500 million BP Gulf Research Initiative (GRI) should be managed by an esteemed, independent scientific organization like the National Science Foundation (NSF) with guidance from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), which would allow for truly independent, peer-reviewed administration of research funds. This would ensure the most credible, ongoing scientific analysis, free from perceived political or corporate influence. It would also enable the broader scientific community, the public, and elected officials to better evaluate any sweeping statements about the Gulf's recovery, without PR spin. Scientists engaged in research under this initiative should be permitted to freely publish and speak about their results. Confidential forensic data collected under contract to BP or the government for use in court cases is distinct from independent science published according to accepted standards of academic freedom and rigor. There is an enormous need for more of the latter following the BP oil disaster, for the greater good of society, science, and the natural world.