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Got Oil?

Posted on behalf of Amanda Mascarelli

A late-breaking session was added to Monday’s schedule at the Geological Society of America meeting in Denver, Colorado, to discuss the status of oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill. The talk, titled “An Update on the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: Where is the Oil Now?” aimed to provide an update on how much oil is left in the environment, where it all went, what scientists are doing to find it, and what long-term impacts can be expected.

The main speaker was Dawn Lavoie, Gulf Coast Science Coordinator for the US Geological Survey, who served as the USGS’ ‘boots-on-the-ground’ person during the spill. Lavoie didn’t spend much time answering the questions of how much oil is left and where, since no one really knows yet. Rather, she reiterated the familiar refrain: “There’s still a lot of uncertainty about what’s out there.” Lavoie pointed to the efforts that scientists are making to get at these questions and said that a coordinated effort to sample for oil in sediments has been completed, with the analysis and report set to be released to the public sometime around 6-8 December.

sand berm.jpgPointing to lessons learned from Exxon Valdez, where fresh oil is still found buried in shallow sediments, Lavoie said that “we need to be thinking long-term in terms of decades” for monitoring of impacts and restoration. Lavoie also emphasized that one of the biggest lessons learned in the wake of the disaster was the need to develop – at the federal level – a way to coordinate with the scientific community and to involve scientists in the response and decision-making process immediately following a disaster. “Communication issues were tremendous,” Lavoie says. “The intention was good. I don’t think the follow through was very good.”

Rob Young, a coastal geologist at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina, who introduced Lavoie and took questions from the audience, said that the lack of coordination with scientists meant that local politicians were driving the spill response with almost no input from engineers, geologists, and other experts. Referring to the controversial sand berm project (pictured) to keep oil from reaching fragile marsh and coastline, Young said: “Not only were scientists not involved in planning this massive project, but [the Louisiana governor’s office] was pretty uninterested in scientific feedback.” What’s needed in the future, Young said, is a way to bring scientists to the table very early on to “peer review ideas on the fly”.

Image: Office of Governor of Louisiana

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