Two of the many perplexing issues about the disastrous gulf oil spill involve tracking the changing directions of the oil in the ocean currents and gauging its impact on the shoreline and in the water. A coalition of 21 Florida schools and marine science organizations has proposed a sophisticated monitoring plan to provide those answers, and BP should move swiftly to grant the $100 million request. The sooner this important research begins, the quicker Florida and the nation can respond and limit the damage.
The ambitious proposal has been swiftly developed by the Florida Institute of Oceanography, the St. Petersburg-based umbrella group that would coordinate the research. The effort is being led by William Hogarth, dean of the University of South Florida's College of Marine Science, and it reflects the type of coordination lacking in so many other areas of the response to the oil still gushing in the gulf. After years of reduced federal funding for research tools such as monitoring buoys in the gulf, this would be a badly needed investment in providing more objective information about a still-evolving disaster.
Florida's colleges and universities already are heavily involved in that effort. For example, USF scientists were the first to find underwater plumes of oil far from the destroyed oil rig. The water samples were taken during a voyage by the research vessel Weatherbird II that makes its home in St. Petersburg's Bayboro Harbor. While BP still insists that large quantities of oil have not been found below the surface, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration confirmed at least some of USF's samples were from the spill. Yet BP initially refused to supply oil samples from the destroyed rig to compare with the oil found by USF researchers.
Meanwhile, Florida's Oil Spill Academic Task Force is coordinating the efforts of the state's public and private universities and matching scientific expertise to the needs of state and local governments. The task force's website, www.oilspill.fsu.edu, offers a wealth of information ranging from tracking the likely path of the spill to providing ways citizens can become involved in response efforts.
But much more needs to be done to better match the independent research response to the size of the spill. To its credit, BP promises to spend $500 million on research. Yet its plans to solicit and review research proposals suggests a leisurely approach that fails to reflect the urgency to better understand what is happening now. There is no time to lose, and the oceanography institute's request for $100 million is more than reasonable. No other gulf state is better positioned to marshal the marine science resources and expertise to begin work immediately.
The institute's proposal has strong bipartisan backing, including Gov. Charlie Crist, U.S. Sens. George LeMieux and Bill Nelson and the state's entire U.S. House delegation. If BP is sincere in its commitment to independent research on the path and impact of the oil spill, it should immediately embrace this Florida effort, write the check and let the work begin.