Last week the federal Oil Spill Commission — co-chaired by former Gov. and Sen. Bob Graham and former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator William Reilly — released its final report on the Deepwater Horizon incident. The report and its supporting white papers admirably explored the root causes of the spill (or more properly the leak), and provided bold recommendations on how to prevent future mishaps and to support restoration of the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem and its resources.
Among their 15 major recommendations, the commissioners propose the creation of a permanent fund for long-term restoration to be capitalized from penalty monies that will likely be forthcoming under provisions of the Clean Water Act.
For those of us in the science community engaged in responding to the leak, it was clear that we had to play catchup when reacting to the event and its potential impacts because of major voids in scientific information. This included the distribution and concentration of oil and the impacts of remedial measures such as dispersants and sand berms taken to mitigate the severity of the leak's impacts.
Other questions: What living resources (fishes, mammals, turtles, corals) were at risk, and how fast could the ecosystem 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.
We hope Congress adopts the commission's recommendation and places some of the penalty money in a fund for ecosystem restoration. If it does, part of these funds should be allocated to increasing our basic knowledge of how the Gulf of Mexico works so as to guide and monitor restoration efforts.
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.
Our Florida coastal economy took a big and largely needless hit from fears of oil on beaches that never materialized on the peninsula. Having a network of sensors and other ship-based monitoring efforts deployed and collecting data throughout the gulf would have allowed much greater situational awareness, which would have directly translated into maintaining jobs and revenue.
We believe it wise to adopt the recommendation of the Oil Spill Commission to create an interest-bearing trust fund, administered by the nation's ocean agency — the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — with representation from the five coastal states and the broad science community. We need to understand how dollars put into restoration activities can have the greatest impact on improving the gulf's natural resources. Further, we must better prepare for these events. Investment in research and monitoring will pay big dividends by separating fact from fiction and better targeting our response. It will also spur badly needed technological and scientific innovation in this critical but largely hidden realm.