Deepwater Horizon: What we learned from worst oil spill ever

(From The Christian Science Monitor / Doug Struck / June 10, 2020)

Why We Wrote This – When a long-term project winds down, reflecting on gains and losses is part of the process. Thousands of experts studied oil spills and the Gulf of Mexico after Deepwater Horizon, the worst oil spill in history.

Christopher Reddy had had it. The scientist had been studying oil spills for 15 years, but he was frustrated that his lab’s work was ignored by both government and industry. He figured it was time do something else.

A few weeks later, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded.

“I got a call from a government scientist I knew very well. He said we need someone to go down and do fieldwork. I told him, ‘Nah, I quit science. I’m done.’”

The Deepwater Horizon explosion, on April 20, 2010, soon became the world’s biggest maritime oil leak, and Dr. Reddy, a senior scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, soon found himself headed to Louisiana.

“The guy’s boss, who I was really good friends with, called me several days later, and he said ‘Listen you got to get over this whole ‘quitting this oil spill thing.’ Here’s the deal: You are going to get involved, you will do some good science, it will change your career, and you will make a huge impact,’” Dr. Reddy recalls with a chuckle. “He was absolutely right.”

The eruption at the wellhead a mile underneath the BP Deepwater Horizon drilling rig 10 years ago was a catastrophic disaster: It killed 11 oil workers, injured 17 more, and poisoned thousands of square miles of water, air, beach, and marsh. Millions of marine animals and seabirds died, and the Gulf’s vital seafood and tourist industries were paralyzed, bankrupting workers and businesses. The well jetted more than 200 million gallons of oil and gas into the water for 87 days, until it was finally capped July 15, 2010.

The harm from the accident, which dwarfed the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill of 11 million gallons, was indisputable. But scientists, while paying homage to the tragedy, say the spill spawned a bonus: 10 years of intense research into the Gulf of Mexico and oil spills.

“It’s been hugely successful,” says Rita Colwell, an acclaimed microbiologist who headed the National Science Foundation and agreed to take a 10-year post to direct the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI), funded with $500 million from BP.

The initiative lists assistance from 4,400 researchers, involvement of more than 380 other scientific groups, production of more than 3,000 sets of data, and 1,400 published papers, not including research done outside of GoMRI.

“We’ve just been hugely productive. And we’ve worked really hard to keep the public informed,” Dr. Colwell says by telephone from her home near Washington. The program is wrapping up its work with a “holistic” overview of the research, she says.

The conclusions of the science are not unequivocal. The role of dispersants, which were injected in the oil plume underwater for the first time, still remains contentious. But researchers did find that natural microbes ate a lot more of the oil than expected. They also found there’s a narrow window before sunlight converts liquid oil on the surface to a sticky sludge that does not respond to dispersants.

They found that many species recovered faster than predicted, while other species were devastated, some for generations. And the researchers established a foundation of data about the ecology of the Gulf of Mexico that had not existed before. 

Science often focuses on “the smallest molecule or the smallest microorganism,” Dr. Colwell says. The Deepwater research, she adds, involved many in the Gulf community and points to the need to take a broader view that includes impacts on people.  

“It’s not enough to study the physics, or the dispersion of oil or the chemistry, without understanding the social impacts, which were really extensive in the Gulf,” Dr. Colwell says.

Many others agree.

“There was a lot of science done,” says Dr. Reddy, who played a key role in the post-spill efforts at the Gulf. “Ten years later we spent millions and millions of dollars to study the spill. We know a lot about this spill.”

Read the full article here

GoMRI “In the news” is a reposting of articles about GoMRI-funded research (published by various news outlets).