On 20 April 2010, the Deep Water Horizon (DWH) drilling rig operating approximately 50 miles (80 km) off the coast of Louisiana experienced a catastrophic failure that resulted in the release of petroleum (oil and gas) and subsequent explosion and fire, the ultimate sinking of the rig, and a discharge of gas and light sweet crude oil from an ocean depth of nominally 5000 feet (1525 m). “This tragic event was overshadowed with the loss of 11 men who were working on the rig at the time of the explosion.”
The DWH spill was likely the largest in US history. The large oil and gas volumes released during the spill are part of a series of petroleum-related impacts suffered by the Gulf of Mexico, including the IXTOC I spill in 1979, the large-scale oil spillage during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and the chronic annual releases due to ship activity, industry activity, and human use.
The DWH spill resulted in petroleum and dispersants entering the Gulf of Mexico at varied concentration levels vertically and laterally, with a yet-to-be-determined impact on the ecosystems.
On 24 May 2010, BP committed $500 million over a 10-year period to create a broad, independent research program to be conducted at research institutions primarily in the US Gulf Coast States. BP asked Dr. Rita Colwell to Chair the GoMRI Research Board because of her experience as Director of the National Science Foundation and her prior research and scientific publications on microbial degradation of oil. Dr. Coldwell identified highly qualified scientists and the the governors of the five Gulf of Mexico states nominated two Research Board members each. The GoMRI Research Board has 20 members who are science, public health, and research administration experts.
BP provided GoMRI Year 1 (1 June 2010 – 31 May 2011) funds to Gulf Coast State institutions for rapid-response studies in the immediate aftermath of the DWH oil spill. Subsequent GoMRI funds have been used to support research programs for both consortia and individual investigators. The annual funding level for all GoMRI activities will be $50 million per year.
The objectives of the GoMRI are to investigate the impacts of the oil, dispersed oil, and dispersant on the ecosystems of the Gulf of Mexico and affected coastal States in a broad context of improving fundamental understanding of the dynamics of such events and the associated environmental stresses and public health implications. The GoMRI will also fund research into improved spill mitigation, oil and gas detection, characterization and remediation technologies. The ultimate goal of the GoMRI is to improve society’s ability to understand, respond to, and mitigate the impacts of petroleum pollution and related stressors of the marine and coastal ecosystems, with an emphasis on conditions found in the Gulf of Mexico. Knowledge accrued will be applied to restoration and to improvement of the long-term environmental health of the Gulf of Mexico.
Since the DWH spill in April 2010, the oceanographic and environmental communities have strongly advocated the importance of research in the Gulf of Mexico and the affected Gulf States for characterization of the event, elucidation of the processes affecting the oil/dispersant system, and assessment of the long-term impact. Numerous discussions and three important meetings open to public participation were held to define the GoMRI intellectual themes.
The first meeting was convened by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy on 19 May 2010 in Washington, DC and was hosted by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The meeting included approximately 40 leaders from major ocean research institutions, with strong representation from Gulf Coast States.
The second meeting was held on 3 June 2010 at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, LA and was co-sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Consortium for Ocean Leadership. This meeting included about 200 researchers representing the major oceanographic institutions and academic departments in the United States, including representatives from all of the affected Gulf States. The meeting was convened to address both short-term response actions and long-term monitoring and understanding of environmental impacts.
The third meeting was held 22–23 June 2010 at New Orleans, LA and was sponsored by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies of Science. Over 300 participants attended the workshop, including representatives from all of the affected Gulf Coast States. The meeting was convened to address public health impacts and responses to them in the short- and long-term, including monitoring and surveillance of potentially affected populations.
The GoMRI Research Board also convened a Public Health Workshop  on July 30,2013 to inform the GoMRI Research Board of ongoing research and potential future directions for investment related to public health impacts of oil spills with emphasis on the Deepwater Horizon event. As a result of this meeting, the wording of Theme 5 has been updated to be more encompassing of what the GoMRI Research Board hopes to accomplish in the public health arena (see updated language below).
The GoMRI Research Board identified five research themes from the results of these meetings:
- Physical distribution, dispersion, and dilution of petroleum (oil and gas), its constituents, and associated contaminants (e.g., dispersants) under the action of physical oceanographic processes, air sea interactions, and tropical storms.
- Chemical evolution and biological degradation of the petroleum/dispersant systems and subsequent interaction with coastal, open-ocean, and deep-water ecosystems.
- Environmental effects of the petroleum/dispersant system on the sea floor, water column, coastal waters, beach sediments, wetlands, marshes, and organisms; and the science of ecosystem recovery.
- Technology developments for improved response, mitigation, detection, characterization, and remediation associated with oil spills and gas releases.
- Impact of oil spills on public health including behavioral, socioeconomic, environmental risk assessment, community capacity and other population health considerations and issues.
In order to fill a funding gap in critical data acquisition, a Request for Proposals was released to support continuity of observations and sampling and for initiation of emergent, e.g., time sensitive, observations and sampling during July 1, 2011 to September 30, 2011. Also available was two months of support for ancillary work, i.e., to catalogue the observations and samples and prepare them for availability to the wider community. Seventeen awards were made to sustain or initiate critical observations and sampling related to the DWH oil spill.
GoMRI issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) in April 2011 to create research consortia, having four or more participating institutions, to address one or multiple research themes. Eight awards were announced in August 2011. Additionally, a second Request for Proposals was released in December 2011 for proposals from individual investigators or collaborative efforts involving a principal investigator (PI) and up to three co-principal investigators (co-PIs) from no more than three additional institutions. Nineteen awards were announced in August 2012. Work from these funded consortia and projects is ongoing.
In response to a RFP released in November 2013, the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative Research Board selected 12 research consortia to conduct scientific studies of the impacts of oil, dispersed oil, and dispersant on the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem and public health. To learn more, click here.
For Program Years 6-8, more information can be found here.