Research, response for future oil spills: Lessons learned from Deepwater Horizon

Posted In Gulf Oil Catastrophe, News
Dec
3

By NOAA,

A special collection of articles about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill provides the first comprehensive analysis and synthesis of the science used in the unprecedented response effort by the government, academia, and industry.

Papers present a behind-the-scenes look at the extensive scientific and engineering effort, teams, data, information, and advice from within and outside the government, assembled to respond to the disaster. And, with the benefit of hindsight and additional analyses, these papers evaluate the accuracy of the information that was used in real-time to inform the response team and the public.

For the most part, information presented publically during the spill was accurate. Oil was rapidly consumed by bacteria, seafood was not contaminated by hydrocarbons or dispersants, and the oil budget was by and large accurate. The only part of the oil budget that was later found to be inaccurate was the fraction of oil that was chemically dispersed versus naturally dispersed. That information had no impact on public safety, seafood safety or the response effort, but understanding the amount of oil that was dispersed chemically vs. naturally is important for future such efforts.

One of the most controversial issues concerned the rate at which hydrocarbons were spewing forth from the damaged well. The lengthy time it took for the scientific team to determine the flow rate led to considerable speculation that the government was withholding information. In reality, as described by the papers, the government/academic team charged with determining flow rate took the time they needed to get it right. The accuracy of the flow rates improved with time as more and better in situ data were acquired and more independent methods reported results.

Valuable lessons were learned, with preparation and knowledge being two key elements needed to respond to disasters such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, one of the worst environmental emergencies in the history of the U.S. and one that also took the lives of 11 oil rig workers.

Two overview papers and 13 specialty papers constitute a special section of the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. Of the 15 papers, three are newly published: two introductory papers and one specialty paper provide an inside look at the scientific and engineering aspects of stopping the flow of oil, guaranteeing the integrity of the well once it was shut in, estimating the amount of oil spilled, capturing and recovering oil, tracking and forecasting surface oil, protecting coastal and oceanic wildlife and habitat, managing fisheries and protecting the safety of seafood. The papers describe the process underway to determine the impact of the spill on the natural resources and ecosystems of the Gulf of Mexico, but because those analyses are not completed, no conclusions are presented. The remaining 12 papers have been previously published online.

“While the federal family was well versed in oil response and remediation, and we brought many resources to bear, the scale and complexity of Deepwater Horizon taxed our organizations in unprecedented ways,” said Jane Lubchenco, Ph.D., under secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and NOAA administrator. “We learned much during this extraordinary disaster and we hope the lessons learned will be implemented before and used during any future events.”

In one of the papers “Science in support of the Deepwater Horizon response,” lead author Lubchenco and her co-authors suggest future oil spill response preparedness include:

– Gather adequate environmental baselines for all regions at risk;
– Develop new technologies for rapid precise reconnaissance and sampling to support a timely and robust response effort;
– Fill large information gaps regarding biological effects of oil, changing climate, and other simultaneous drivers of variability in coastal and aquatic ecosystems;
– Require future oil extraction permits be conditional on having mechanisms in place to rapidly assess flow rate; and
– Conduct research on the impacts of dispersants and dispersants-plus-oil on a wide range of species and life stages.

Another paper Applications of science and engineering to quantify and control the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, describes the unprecedented collaboration among government, academic, and industry scientists and engineers. Lead author Marcia McNutt, Ph.D., director of the USGS, explains how scientific and engineering information was crucial to guide decision-making for questions never before encountered, especially during the tense hours after the well was capped, but might still be leaking underground.

“Although we all hope ‘Never again!’ will there be an oil spill like the Deepwater Horizon, there will always be some risk as we move into deeper water and more difficult environments in our quest for the planet’s remaining fossil fuels,” said McNutt. “A significant drawback in addressing many of the issues we confronted in Deepwater Horizon was the lack of peer-reviewed scientific publications from prior marine-well blowouts to help guide our actions; we will not make that mistake again by neglecting to publish for posterity the scientific lessons from this tragedy.”

The event also showed the value of federal partnerships with academic institutions.

“The coordination within and across agencies was impressive, but so too was the engagement of academic scientists in a joint effort to respond to the disaster” said Steve Murawski, a co-author on both introductory papers, chief scientist at NOAA Fisheries during the response effort and now a professor at the University of South Florida. “Through these partnerships, new scientific discoveries were made such as estimating flow rate from atmospheric measurements, testing for dispersant in seafood, understanding the behavior of the loop current, and discovering novel microbial communities in the Gulf.”

A final paper “Scientific basis for safely shutting in the Macondo well after the April 20, 2010 Deepwater Horizon blowout” further points to the unprecedented level of coordination among scientists, engineers, and emergency response officials in the public and private sectors. In this paper, scientists describe the geological hazards of shutting in the well and the conditions under which this could safely and successfully be done.

“Without this level of cooperation and round-the-clock engagement by people from many disciplines, it would not have been possible to carry out the continual scientific analyses needed to ensure the well was not leaking below the sea floor once the capping stack was closed,” explained lead author Steve Hickman, USGS research geologist. “For the government scientists onsite at BP headquarters, rapid acquisition and analysis of critical data sets and open exchange of ideas and possible outcomes was essential to ensuring the well had enough integrity to remain safely shut in until it was killed and sealed with cement.”

Original Article, NOAA / USGS

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Resources

Federal

  • Deep Water Horizon Response is the official site of the incident in conjunction with BP, DOI, NPS, USGS, CDC, USFWS, NOAA and other branches of the US government (collectively called Unified Command). Information, including the latest news, photos, area plans, and volunteer information.
  • NOAA is a government program that uses science and research to protect life, property and natural resources. This NOAA site provides maps of the spill and related statistics, including a trajectory forecast map for the oil spill.
  • The Environmental Protection Agency provides data on Air, Land, and Water pollutants including sampling maps and contaminant levels.

Louisiana

  • Volunteer Louisiana is the official site for the State of Louisiana to get involved in the spill response.
  • The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries provides maps of closures to fishing areas in LA.
  • The Louisiana Emergency Office has made Google Earth files of the spill available to the public here http://gohsep.la.gov/oilspill.aspx and also has current information on general closures of waterways, photos, and reports.
  • The Audubon Nature Institute site provides a number for citizens to call if turtles, manatees, dolphins, or other animals are in distress
  • The Oiled Wildlife Care Network is a CA based non-profit is advising folks in the Gulf of Mexico on best practices and provide resources on how people can help.
  • The Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana is a non-profit organization who strive to protect and restore coastal Louisiana. Volunteers are needed for numerous actions including: monitoring, oiled wildlife recovery, boat driving, or simple monetary donations.
  • The Greater New Orleans Foundation is a philanthropic organization in Louisiana and the surrounding region that joins with other non-profit, foundations and community and government officials to address the needs of the community. The Foundation has opened the Gulf Coast Oil Spill Fund.
  • The Louisiana Bucket Brigade is an environmental health and justice organization working with communities near oil refineries and chemical plants. They aid residents in these regions to reduce pollution and protect public health. The Brigade has formed an incident map where you can report observed signs of oil.

Alabama

  • The Alabama Coastal Foundation is an education based organization whose mission is to project the quality of Alabama’s coastal resources. They are currently training volunteers to help directly with the spill response.
  • The site by the Alabama Governor’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives gives basic phone numbers.
  • The Mobile Bay National Estuary Program is an organization funded by the EPA fighting the environmental challenged facing Mobile Bay. This site gives e-mail addresses and phone numbers to help and provides basic information.
  • The Mobile Bay Keeper is a group of citizens who are interested in preserving the Mobile Bay watershed as well as protecting the health of the individuals and environment in the Bay. Check out the latest information about the spill and learn how to become a member and donate to the cause.

Mississippi

Florida

  • The Florida Department of Environmental Protection is the lead agency in FL and this website provides the most thorough information in the state.
  • Volunteer Florida, the website of the Governor’s Commission on Volunteerism and Community Service and the State Emergency Response Team, lists volunteer opportunities by county.
  • The Escambia County site provides summary points of actions taken by BP and FL with a focus on the County.
  • The Pinellas County site is a concise list of related local websites and numbers for information.
  • The Gulf County site has current news on the spill as it relates to the county
  • Volunteer directly with the largest wild bird hospital in the United States, the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary.

Organizations and other networks

  • American Birding Association
  • Audubon is a global leader in protecting birds and other wildlife and their habitats. They are partnering with other organizations.
  • The Sierra Club is a grassroots environmental organization that works to protect communities, wild places, and the planet. Updates on the oil spill, as well as volunteer and donation information.
  • The Nature Conservancy is a conservation organization with a mission to preserve and protect ecologically significant lands and waters for nature and people. Learn more about the oil spill and how to help out at http://www.nature.org/wherewework/northamerica/states/alabama/features/oilspill.html and check out their blog.
  • Sea Grant is nationwide network (administered through NOAA) of 32 university-based programs that work with coastal communities on environmental stewardship and the responsible use of our coasts. The Gulf of Mexico Sea Grant Programs provides resources to educators with research that may be impacted by the spill.
  • The National Wildlife Federation is America’s largest conservation organization whose mission is to protect and restore wildlife habitat, confront global warming and connect with nature. Get the latest information on the oil spill crisis and how to help.
  • The mission of Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research is to provide rehabilitation of injured, orphaned, and oiled native wild birds to return to their natural environment. Donate to their research.
  • Green Peace is an international organization that strives to save the planet from environmental threats such as global warming, destruction of forests and deterioration of the oceans. Follow their blog and learn how to take action.
  • Global Green USA is an international environmental non-profit organization with an office in New Orleans that strives to fight global climate change, eliminate weapons of mass destruction and create clean, safe drinking water for all. Follow their blog and get involved.
  • Matter of Trust is a non-profit organization focused on materializing sustainable systems by mimicking Mother Nature as well as concentrating on manmade surplus, natural surplus and eco-educational programs. Learn very simple ways to help the oil spill crisis.
  • The official Facebook page of Unified Command.
  • BP Gulf of Mexico response.