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After the spill, what we should do better now

It is amazing to us — a full year later — that despite how much we have learned about the Deepwater Horizon disaster, there is so much we have yet to understand, particularly about how long it will take the ecosystem to recover — if indeed it does come back fully.

One important thing to realize is that the spill occurred nearly a mile beneath the Gulf of Mexico, a cold, dark, alien world. It will take years or more for all of the problems to surface and — literally — to work their way up the food chain. As with Exxon Valdez, the extent of environmental impacts will emerge over time. Some will surprise us, others will come with head-slapping clarity, and still others will never be fully understood.

The fate of the Prince William Sound herring stock is an example. The stocks collapsed after the Valdez spill and have not recovered. Was this a consequence of the oil or some other ecosystem response, or unrelated altogether? Scientists do not yet know with certainty.

In the next several years seemingly anomalous findings in the Gulf of Mexico will need to be examined rigorously to understand their potential links to the spill. Case in point — stillborn bottlenose dolphin births. This year the number is high compared to previous years. Is this a consequence or a coincidence? A "CSI" effort is the only way to understand if the two are linked.

Similar events in the gulf will need to be explained. The more than 200 million gallons of toxic chemicals released in the gulf must have serious consequences, and it will take careful and concerted science efforts over the next several years to fully comprehend them.

What have we learned already from Deepwater Horizon that we should address as a nation? Here are some things that still worry us:

First is our penchant for making risk-prone decisions when it comes to large-scale policy objectives. Any actuary will tell you that insurance premiums are set based on the probability that an event will happen (for example, a hurricane hitting New Orleans and swamping sea wall protection, a 9.0 quake triggering a tsunami that overwhelms a nuclear power plant, a state-of-the-art offshore oil rig experiencing a catastrophic blowout) multiplied by the consequences of such an improbable event actually happening (the so-what-if-it-did factor). But policymakers rarely factor in the potential consequences when allowing decisions to proceed, particularly if the assumed probability of all the tumblers falling into place is low.

Why were the oil companies allowed to assume that the probability of catastrophe was negligible when the history of deep oil exploration is so scant? The Deepwater Horizon event has been termed a classic "black swan." The philosopher Karl Popper observed that the logical assumption that all swans were white, based on millions of previous observations, was invalidated when Europeans ventured to Australia.

If we as a society continue to venture deeper and deeper seeking oil in the gulf and elsewhere, using evermore exotic technologies, why should we assume our experiences in shallower waters are a legitimate basis to forecast risk? Are we literally out of our depth in our ability to deal with a crisis so deep in an ocean?

Second is our hubris to think that there is a technological solution for every problem of man's creation. The struggle to "plug the damn hole" (President Barack Obama's quote), well documented in Joel Achenbach's book A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea, illustrates the inadequacies we face in trying to manage what we don't understand. Trial and error (recall "top hat" and "junk shot") are a poor substitute for proper investments in fundamental science, technology and pre-planning for the unlikely but consequential.

One obvious pre-planning issue is the coordination among academic and government scientists. A unique aspect of this spill was the role of academic scientists as "first responders." The Oil Pollution Act has a prescribed structure primarily involving federal and state agencies and their contractors. If, as with Deepwater Horizon, we can count on academic scientists to be involved, then we need to seek new mechanisms to coordinate these actions as part of the process. Once better mechanisms are set up, we need to drill and practice the way we intend to play.

Third is our need to make our coastal communities and ecosystems more resilient to natural and unnatural disasters. Our coasts are an enigma — living by them is both a joy and a calculated risk, one heightened by years of neglect of our natural infrastructure such as energy-damping wetlands. The Gulf of Mexico Ecosystem Restoration Task Force needs our wholehearted support to improve our natural capital investments, to rebuild wetlands, fisheries and beaches.

Healthy fish populations are a first line of defense against Deepwater Horizon-type environmental shocks. Fisheries management in the Gulf of Mexico involves a system of closures, bag limits and size restrictions. By rebuilding the spawning power of a stock, it can better withstand events like Deepwater, which injured or killed substantial numbers of free-floating eggs and tiny larvae, which are the next generation.

Likewise, destruction of nursery habitat will mean fewer yearlings will swim from estuaries to the open ocean. Understanding that Deepwater had variable effects throughout the complex life cycles of species like bluefin tuna and red snapper should be a priority as we help managers rebuild fishery populations.

Beaches are complex living systems, and helping them to recover is more complex than just sifting them to restore the white sands of the Panhandle. As we found out with Exxon Valdez, remediation efforts have consequences for these systems, and what appears on the surface may not tell the full story of what lies beneath.

Last is our investment in science to monitor, predict and respond to real environmental threats. We simply have not invested in the technology and monitoring commensurate with our needs for timely, credible information — in military terms "situational awareness." Sketchy reports of underwater oil plumes were contradictory and sensationalized by some. In part this was because there is no operational technology that can determine in real time the concentration and type of hydrocarbons in ocean depths.

We could see oil spreading out in satellite images but no similar picture emerged for the deep sea. Rather, scientists took thousands of individual water samples, much as oceanographers have for a hundred years, for eventual diagnosis in shore-side laboratories weeks and months later.

Similarly, predictions by some of oil reaching the Keys and East Coast and of deep water "dead zones" were failures of science that misinformed the public, sapped limited response resources and undermined confidence. A robust and technologically advanced monitoring and prediction system must be a cost of doing business in the deep sea.

In short, if we don't have a baseline for knowing what's already out there, it's difficult, if not impossible, to fully judge the spill's effects. We need to increase our basic knowledge of how the gulf works to guide and monitor restoration efforts and to prepare for any future spills.

A stream of data on the chemical makeup of the gulf's waters, flows of ocean currents and counts of its flora and fauna are keys not only in ascertaining the rates of recovery, but in understanding the impacts of restoration efforts such as rebuilding marshes, reducing nutrient enrichment and fisheries recovery efforts. Establishing an ecological monitoring network would also pay off in our being much more prepared for the next oil spill or hurricane, and for predicting Red Tides and other events that affect the coastal economies.

We still lack solid knowledge concerning what living resources (fishes, mammals, turtles, corals) were at risk, and how fast the ecosystem can degrade oil and natural gas released into the environment. We knew that the gulf had a baseline of hydrocarbons due to ongoing small releases from natural sources as well as oil and gas production. By the time it was apparent we were dealing with a massive leak, ascertaining just what the background was that we were measuring Deepwater Horizon against became much more difficult than if we had had good monitoring across the gulf before the leak.

Are we in any better shape now than April 20, 2010? Yes and no. Our federal ocean agencies now know what it takes to respond to a disaster of the scale of Deepwater Horizon. Institutional partnerships among the Coast Guard and the multitude of state and federal agencies will be strengthened by the "lessons learned." Oil companies are more cognizant of their limitations and are developing a consortium approach to address some priorities. Increased scrutiny of drilling procedures, safety and permitting is a focus of the renamed Minerals Management Service (now BOEMER).

But have we started a crash program to improve our response capabilities, including fundamental and applied science? No we have not. Have we committed the planning and funding to make the gulf more resilient to threats such as oil spills and sea level rise? Not yet.

Adm. Thad Allen referred to the Deepwater Horizon spill as "omnidirectional and multidimensional," in reference to the multitude of issues faced in responding to the unique characteristics of that spill. But fighting oil spills is like fighting wars; preparing to fight the last war is a fool's errand.

We should not prepare solely for a scenario identical to Deepwater Horizon; we need to be agile and creative in assessing our options. For that is the enduring lesson of metaphorical "black swans," or perhaps more appropriately, brown pelicans.

Steven Murawski, Ph.D., is the former director of scientific programs and chief science adviser of the National Marine Fisheries Service, and was responsible for coordinating NOAA's science efforts supporting the Deepwater Horizon event. He is now Distinguished Professor and Downtown Progress-Peter Betzer Endowed Chair at the University of South Florida, College of Marine Science, St. Petersburg. William Hogarth, Ph.D., is the former dean of the USF College of Marine Science and is currently director of the Florida Institute of Oceanography, a consortium of 20 ocean institutions in the state.

After the spill, what we should do better now 04/15/11 [Last modified: Friday, April 15, 2011 8:26pm]

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