Funding Cuts Leave Oil Spill Reseachers Blind

Gulf oil slick
TAMPA (2010-06-15) -

One of the biggest questions about the oil spill is, where's it headed next? Researchers say they'd be able to tell us more - if their funding hadn't been cut by half in the last decade. Today, they went to Congress seeking more money - and they want BP to ante up, too.

Since the Deepwater Horizon collapsed and sunk a mile to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, scientists have been befuddled about what's happened to all that oil. Have dispersants sunk it to the Gulf floor? Is it flowing north toward the Louisiana marshes? Or is it slinking south into the Loop Current, toward the Florida Keys?

Five years ago, it wouldn't have been such a mystery. That's when researchers like USF's Robert Weisberg had 14 buoys deployed in the gulf, taking measurements on things like ocean currents and temperature.

That was then.

"Right now, I'm down to 4 buoys that report in real time," he said. "Unfortunately, with the reduction in resources, we don't have spares, we don't have enough ship time to go out there. So when things break, they break. And so not even all of the information is being reported in real time."

Weisberg has become a rock star in the insular world of oceanography. He sounded the alarm about the oil spill entering the Loop Current before just about anyone else. And he testified before Congress in his role as the head of USF's Ocean Circulation Group.

But that doesn't necessarily mean he's getting more money.

"So I'm down to maybe half the resources I had in the past," Weisberg said. "But equally importantly, we don't have the spares, we don't have the ability to actually go out there, recalibrate our instruments, redeploy new sensors on a regular basis, and therefore make sure everything is working."

For years, scientists have been pressuring the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association to build a network of sensors around the nation's coastlines. But they say funding has dropped by at least half in the last decade. That means they don't have the advanced sensors and high-frequency radar in place to track the oil spill.

Chris Simoniello is with the Gulf of Mexico Coastal Observing System. Without the equipment in place, they have to book time on ships to do research - and that's expensive.

"We've had to pull out assets from the Dry Tortugas and along the coast of Southwest Florida, down toward Naples," she said. "When equipment goes out, we don't have funds to go out for ship times, like we used to do. When we can piggyback with the Coast Guard, we do, but the actual dedicated dollars to see those sustained observations and measurements are no longer there."

The National Science Foundation has already doled out $2.9 million in grants to universities nationwide for research. President Obama has requested $5.6 billion for NOAA. Of that, $464 million is for NOAA's research office, which can be applied to efforts in the Gulf. There is also a supplemental approprations bill in conference on Capitol Hill, which contains $235 million to respond to all aspects of the spill.

Last week, a consortium of 20 Florida universities asked for $100 million from that pot. They were backed by letters sent to the company's CEO from Gov. Crist and Tampa Congresswoman Kathy Castor. But BP said they'd only pony up one-tenth that amount. And Florida researchers would have to compete with institutions all over the world for any more money.

So researchers are going where the money is - BP. It's promised half a billion dollars to pay for oil spill research.

"And if there's money that can be made available through BP to assist with the mess that they made, then I think that's perfectly appropriate," he said. "And as a scientist, I'm going to tell you - I'm going to follow the scientific method. I'm not going to follow BP. So I have no qualms taking BP money, if it's offered to me."

Weisberg says a true national network would cost up to one billion dollars.

And while Simoniello says BP's money would be "too little, too late" to track the spill, she says a little money upfront saves a tremendous amount down the road.

"And we just haven't convinced people of the level of savings that would occur. And that's not just for the BP oil spill," she said. "You're talking about climate change and sea level changes and things like that, the cost of not preparing and not having the correct information to base your decisions on is going to be far more costly than any amount of money required to put the sensors in place."

Researchers say if anything good has come from the spill, it's that attention is focused on the world's last frontier - our oceans.

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