New approach needed for oil spill research

April 20, 2012 5:41 AM

New Wave staff

Inadequate knowledge about the effects of deep-water oil well blowouts such as the Deepwater Horizon event of 2010 constrains scientists’ ability to help manage and assess comparable events in future, according to an article that Tulane University scientists and colleagues will publish in the May issue of BioScience.

Deepwater Horizon

At the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, units gather in response. Scientists now say more knowledge is needed about the effects of drilling accidents at lower sea depths. (Photo from the U.S. Coast Guard)

Michael Blum, and Caz M. Taylor, assistant professors in the Tulane Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, participated on the team.

Even federal “rapid response” grants awarded to study the Deepwater Horizon event were far more focused on near-surface effects than on the deep-water processes that the authors judge to be most in need of research. 

The article, led by Charles H. Peterson of the University of North Carolina, argues that a fundamentally new approach to the study of deep-water oil spills is needed. Previous research has focused mainly on effects on organisms found near the sea surface and on coasts. The new approach would also stress how oil and associated gas move through the sea and affect subsurface and bottom-dwelling organisms. The oil industry is now putting most of its exploration efforts into deep water.

The scientists point out that existing policies and legislation fail to provide for research initiated promptly after a spill has been detected. This has prevented studies that might have guided emergency response procedures two years ago, in particular studies of the effects of chemical dispersants. 

There remain “serious gaps” in background information needed for longer-term assessments of comparable spills, according to the scientists. Much more information is needed about deep-sea ecology and the processes by which oil released at lower depths is degraded by microbes, for example. The gaps impede not only litigation and improvement of government policy, but also attempts to restore damaged ecosystems, the research report says.

BioScience, published monthly, is the journal of the American Institute of Biological Sciences



Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000