BP has promised to eventually dole out $500 million toward research in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
Florida wants $100 million of that pie. And now.
Leading the charge is the dean of the University of South Florida's College of Marine Sciences, William Hogarth. The request follows a wave of media coverage that has carried USF's name from the New Zealand Herald to Al-Jazeera to Rolling Stone.
The proposal calls for the $100 million to be split between 21 Florida schools and marine science organizations, as soon as possible. Hogarth and leaders from other schools, working under the umbrella of the Florida Institute of Oceanography, were spurred to action after talking to BP leaders last week.
"We felt like it'd be 2011 before we'd see anything, and we felt like that was way too late and none of us have a lot money right now," he said. "So we all sort of pushed back and made it very clear that we need it now, we need it fast-tracked... I think they got that message very loud and clear."
U.S. Rep Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, met with two BP executives Wednesday to ask for $100 million for Florida universities. And Gov. Charlie Crist sent a letter to BP in support of the institute's request. He wrote:
Florida's interests are urgent and unique... The potential impact of the spill on our economy, habitat and coastal communities demands that our state have a leadership role in the response.
BP didn't have a clear answer Wednesday.
"The board hasn't been established yet, nor the process to solicit grants," said BP spokesman Mark Proegler. "We certainly welcome that proposal."
The Florida Institute of Oceanography, led by Hogarth, is housed at USF. It is comprised of schools including Florida State University, the University of Florida and Eckerd College, and groups including the Mote Marine Laboratory and the Department of Environmental Protection.
The idea is to do research that makes the best use of materials, facilities and scientists all over the state. The group wants to monitor waters independently, document evolving conditions and develop technologies that detect oil spills before they cause irreversible harm.
Each organization has submitted a personal research plan. They don't know yet how the money would be split.
Marine research isn't cheap. A single day trip on USF's research vessel, Weatherbird II, costs $6,500.
One hundred million is a conservative request, Hogarth said.
"Florida's got a lot of coastline."
USF has been outspoken about its research with the media since the start of the spill, hosting news conferences and answering questions at all hours. But it wasn't trying to use the spotlight to get research funding, Hogarth says.
"I don't think we looked at it from that standpoint," he said. "We were just there. We had the vessel, we were in the right place at the right time with a lot of expertise."
On Tuesday, researchers held a news conference to confirm the existence subsurface oil and to criticize BP for its refusal to provide oil samples.
Castor, in her meeting with BP executives Wednesday, urged them to comply with USF's request.
A sample is vital in scientists' attempts to link clouds of subsurface oil in the gulf to the oil spewing from the destroyed rig, said David Hollander, a chemical oceanographer leading USF's study.
BP vice president David Nagel and BP spokesman Ray Dempsey said there must have been a miscommunication and they would make sure a sample got to USF, Castor said.
Meanwhile, the researchers don't want to be glorified on the heels of tragedy.
"Given the option of being the college nobody knows with the gulf the way it was, they would take that," said USF spokeswoman Vickie Chachere.
When she started working at USF in 2009, she took a tour of the marine labs.
"I was blown away by what I saw down there and who I met," she said. "The level of expertise that is down there has always existed. We don't like to use the words 'world class' because that's significant, but undoubtedly, they have been world class researchers all along. They have just quietly gone about their work."
Months ago, Hogarth lamented that nobody knew about the program.
At a recent oil spill news conference, helicopters hovering overheard, Chachere leaned in to him.
"Dean, I think they know we're here now."
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy and staff writer Jessica Vander Velde contributed to this report. Stephanie Hayes can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8857.