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2011 Annual Lecture Series

Lecture Summaries
June 13-17 2011

Gulf Oil Disaster and the Future of Offshore Drilling
Donald F. Boesch, National Oil Spill Commission
University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science
Summary of comments from June 13

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in April 2010 was the world’s worst marine oil spill, releasing several million barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico over the three-month period needed to contain the leak. The accident killed 11 men working on the Deepwater Horizon platform, caused extensive damage to marine wildlife, and had widespread and dramatic economic impacts on tourism and fishing throughout the Gulf.

While the U.S. has been greatly expanding deep and ultra-deep offshore drilling to maintain its oil outputs over the past decade, there has simultaneously been a lack of newer regulation and a flagging investment in the research and development necessary to safely negotiate these increasingly complex and risky production environments.

Donald Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, was one of seven members appointed to the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling. At his public lecture for Metcalf Institute on June 13, he discussed the goals of the commission, the major factors leading to the accident, and their key findings and recommendations for the future. Boesch shared insights gained from working on this presidential commission and painted a picture of science in action as it responds to this environmental catastrophe. Boesch noted that the crisis tested scientists and regulators alike because of the need for exceptionally rapid responses in an uncertain environment. He also presented a vision for a safer and smarter future regarding offshore drilling.

The National Oil Spill Commission features an accessible final report to the president, an engaging multimedia presentation of the spill with the commission’s assessments, as well as numerous other resources relating to the many dimensions of this accident.

Where Did All That Oil Go? And Why is This Such a Hard Question, Anyway?
Vernon Asper, University of Southern Mississippi
Summary of comments from June 14

Following the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, NOAA released the results of a model (termed the “oil budget”) for the short-term fate of oil in the Gulf in order to guide immediate response efforts. Given the depth and magnitude of the spill, there were many questions surrounding how the oil would travel, in which forms, and how long it would persist.

Vernon Asper, professor of marine science at the University of Southern Mississippi, studied the short-term fate of this oil using electronic sensors, deepwater cameras, and by acquiring water samples for analysis at varying depths within the spill area. The results presented in his Metcalf public lecture provided clues into how the oil was initially transported and later degraded. Asper also discussed each of the components in the NOAA budget and described the mechanisms for removal and degradation in the Gulf.

“What we think we know is that the oil appears to be completely gone. You can’t find any out there either at the surface or in a deep plume,” said Asper. He quickly follows that there are exceptions found floating in marshes and an as of yet unknown quantity isolated on the seafloor.

Although the majority of Deepwater Horizon oil is largely gone from the Gulf environment today, Asper stressed the importance of ongoing research and monitoring into long-term impacts of this spill. The overall environmental consequences may be impossible to determine or observe until more time has passed.

Communication Lessons From the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill
David Ropeik, Author and Risk Communication Consultant, moderator
Summary of comments from June 15

During the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, NOAA and the EPA were each pieces of a larger command structure that needed to communicate across federal, state and other organizational lines. Following the chaos of working within so many jurisdictions, establishing who was in charge, assessing the damage, and deciding how information should best be shared and communicated to the public, it is now possible to review the effectiveness of these approaches to crisis communication and understand the major challenges experienced during this oil spill.

Justin Kenney, director of communication and external affairs for NOAA, and Paul Anastas, assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Research and Development and the science advisor to the Agency, convened to discuss these topics in Metcalf’s public lecture series, moderated by David Ropeik of the Harvard School of Public Health.

Kenney discussed the role of NOAA during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and provided an inside look at the job of communications director, including the common setbacks associated with conveying science to a skeptical public during a crisis. He spoke on the difficulty of releasing vetted scientific data that keeps pace with the immediacy of news reports, and answered an array of questions relating to disseminating information on national versus local levels, and through which forums.

Anastas noted the EPA’s goal to provide instant updates of reliable and accurate data for each day of the spill and information accessible to multiple audience types with the same communiques. Once scientists have reliable data, they should answer questions, “so that no vacuums exist, no fears are harbored because of a lack of information,” said Anastas.

The panel discussion presented competing perspectives on institutional dissemination of crisis information. Scientists working with federal agencies on the Deepwater Horizon spill were sometimes critical of media for reporting prematurely on data that had not been rigorously tested. Journalists were critical of these agencies for refusing to share information with them, and leaving them to fill this “vacuum” how best they were able.

What are better methods for sharing basic information? Should traditional media be entrenched with scientists or kept close to ongoing work, or should these government agencies communicate directly to their constituents? Is the government set up to deliver messages in caring and locally appropriate ways necessary during a crisis? Kenney, Anastas and Ropeik weighed in on these and related questions.

Impacts of the Oil Spill on Seafloor Communities:
Coupling Exploration and Damage Assessment

Erik Cordes, Biology Department, Temple University
Summary of comments from June 16

The public’s attention during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill has focused on the environmental impacts of oil reaching shorelines, saltwater marshes and surface waters of the Gulf. Seafloor communities have occupied much less of the public’s consideration. Erik Cordes of the biology department at Temple University, investigates deep sea corals and seafloor communities as well as contributing scientific data for the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process, which is overseen by NOAA.

Several of Cordes’ previously-selected study sites happened to be very close to the source of the Deepwater Horizon disaster and were under the plume for the entirety of the spill. These seafloor communities were studied prior to the spill, and revisited after the spill to assess damage. Using satellite imagery, geophysical and geochemical data and submersibles, these seafloor communities are being mapped and observed, and they provide important evidence for determining the impact of hydrocarbons and dispersants on the life of the seafloor.

Cordes discussed preliminary findings of coral damage, described the difficulties associated with definitively linking that damage to the oil spill, and framed considerations for how we might define our conservation targets. Given that these ecosystems don’t interact with humans and interact little with other communities that impact humans, how do we begin to assign economic values to them? Cordes’ personal opinion is that “there is an inherent value in some of these sites. You can’t say that if humans never use these species that they are of no value.”

A multimedia presentation of these explorations is available at Ocean Explorer.

Looking Ahead: Developing Alternative Approaches for the Next Oil Spill
Ponisseril Somasundaran
Department of Earth & Environmental Engineering, Columbia University
Summary of comments from June 17

The use of dispersants was widely scrutinized during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The concern was that toxic compounds were being introduced into an environment where they had never before been used; the results were unpredictable.

The work of Dr. Som Somasundaran, professor of environmental engineering at Columbia University, focuses on finding greener solutions for the next oil spill. While popular ideas of sustainability incorporate the United Nations definition, that activities should “meet[s] the needs of the present generation, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” Somasundaran called for a different approach. Sustainability should, rather, “ensure the needs of the future generations even if we have to forego some of our own perceived needs,” according to one of his presentation slides.

Somasundaran presented a brief look at his lab’s efforts to develop a novel “nylon sponge” that is able to capture oil in the form of a nylon-oil glob that can be recaptured by compressing the sponge. In this way it is reusable and appropriate for marshland environments where current remediation strategies are ineffective.

Among the wide variety of topics discussed, Somasundaran also included his design plan for greener surfactants. These would be developed with renewable, low toxicity materials, with the goals of providing better performance and controlled biodegradation.

As deep sea oil drilling becomes more prevalent, we can expect to see more spills in the future. Somasundaran argued that further research and development in greener remediation technologies will enable us to mitigate the environmental and ecologic impact of these disasters.