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BP spills oil research cash

oilspill.jpgPosted on behalf of Amanda Leigh Mascarelli

BP announced on Tuesday that it would be doling out the first US$25 million of its pledged half-billion dollar Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GRI) to three US institutions. The company will be fast-tracking $5 million to Louisiana State University, $10 million to the Florida Institute of Oceanography, and $10 million to the Northern Gulf Institute, which is a consortium of institutes led by Mississippi State University. Each institution will decide internally how the funds will be spent.

The money will be devoted to high-priority studies to understand the interactions between oil and dispersants and to assess their impacts on vulnerable ecosystems. Since chemical dispersants have primarily been used for treating oil at the surface in prior spills, little is known about how oil and dispersants interact at great depths in the water column.

BP expects to announce a call for proposals within a day or two for long-term research ideas and large-scale research networks to be funded by the remaining US$475 million promised by the GRI.

The company has appointed an independent advisory council, which consists of six high-profile scientists, including Rita Colwell, former director of the US National Science Foundation, who will chair the panel.

The advisory council worked with BP scientists to form five interdisciplinary themes that will act as umbrellas for the research initiatives that are approved. For instance, one of the research themes will focus on physical oceanography to better understand how dispersants and oil are transported by ocean currents and tropical storms. Another will focus on the environmental impacts of oil and dispersants in deep and shallow waters, in wetlands and marshes, and on coastal beaches. The aim, says BP chief scientist Ellen Williams, is to develop a science of ecosystem recovery and to learn how the ecosystem recovers from insults and what can be done to speed up the recovery. Under another theme, researchers will look at the effects of ecosystem stresses from oil spills on long-term public health.

Together with independent reviewers, the panel will assess incoming proposals and make recommendations to BP about which research centers should be funded under the GRI.

One might question whether this is too little too late, but BP sees it as forward thinking. “This is a devastating event, but it’s not the first oil spill, and it won’t be the last one, big or small,” says Williams.

Image: Georgia Department of Natural Resources

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