NAPLES — For 86 days last summer, oil and gas spewed from BP’s blown-out well on the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico until crews finally capped it.
Unlike BP’s gusher, though, $450 million pledged by BP to pay for a decade of research has been stuck in a bureaucratic bottleneck; some say more money is needed to keep track of the Gulf.
Scientists are busily trying to track the effects of the disaster on the Gulf of Mexico, but so far don’t know where they will get money to continue their work as the crisis response to Deepwater Horizon turns to restoration and long-term monitoring.
“They can’t start and stop,” said Kumar Mahadevan, president of Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota. “Science doesn’t work that way.”
“I wish I could say the spill has made a huge difference in funding but it hasn’t,” said Ann Jochens, regional coordinator for the Gulf of Mexico Coastal Ocean Observing System
In the wake of the Deepwater Horizon explosion, which killed 11 rig workers, BP pledged $500 million during the next decade to pay for Gulf research.
Some $50 million of that already has been distributed through “fast-track grants” to research institutions in Florida, Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana.
The rest has been slow in coming as lawyers for BP, the states and the federal government negotiated a 50-page contract that lays out the intricacies of how the money would be spent.
That agreement was signed in mid-March by BP and the Gulf of Mexico Alliance, a nonprofit group that houses the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative set up with BP money.
Researchers are itching for the next step, the release of a Request for Proposals that would set out the details for how to apply for the first batch of money, expected to be $50 million each year.
“It has been very time-consuming, but the end is near,” said Bill Hogarth, dean of the College of Marine Science at the University of South Florida and a member of the 20-person board that will sift through the proposals.
Half of the members are BP appointees and half are appointed by the five Gulf states through the Alliance; the aim is to make decisions on a consensus basis, but any matter requiring a vote would need two-thirds majority to win approval.
The Gulf Research Initiative will focus on projects to study the fate of the Deepwater Horizon oil and the chemicals used to disperse it, their environmental effects, technology to improve oil spill response and public health.
The U.S. Oil Spill Commission, established by President Obama to study the disaster, found fault with the early scientific response.
Fifth of a series of reports about this week’s first anniversary of the Gulf oil spill.
A lack of access to the disaster zone early on hampered independent scientists, many of them uniquely qualified to study the effects on the Gulf, the commission’s final report said.
The commission said that the rush to study the effects strained scientific resources around the Gulf.
“Independent, industry and government scientists all wrangled for funding, equipment and vessels, often duplicating efforts in the process,” the report said.
The commission recommended expedited funding for scientists to study any future spills and better coordination of the research.
Tracking the spill was complicated by monitoring gaps that left scientists with only a sketchy picture of where the oil might be headed below the surface.
Scientists put together a wish list for new offshore monitoring platforms, drift buoys and automated underwater gliders that wouldn’t only have tracked the spill in real-time but would improve scientists’ ability to monitor the spill’s effects into the future.
With state and federal budgets getting slashed, though, scientists aren’t encouraged.
“I wish I could say the spill has made a huge difference in funding but it hasn’t,” said Ann Jochens, regional coordinator for the Gulf of Mexico Coastal Ocean Observing System, or GCOOS.
Mahadevan, at Mote in Sarasota, said some scientists are starting to talk about pushing to set up a research endowment with 50 percent of any settlement with BP. The other 50 percent would go toward restoration projects.
That would mean a $20 billion settlement would result in $10 billion for a research endowment that, at 5 percent interest, would earn $50 million per year.
Members of the Louisiana congressional delegation have filed bills in the House and Senate that would dedicate 80 percent of the Clean Water Act fines assessed to BP to Gulf restoration projects.
Mahadevan said that would miss an important opportunity to look out for the Gulf of Mexico’s future beyond the short-term restoration.
“The long-term recovery is really important,” he said.
Mahadevan said he fears the dramatic images of oily birds, crude-soaked marshes and tarballs on northern Gulf beaches are fading from the national psyche.
That doesn’t bode well for making the health of the Gulf a national priority — even the parts most people don’t think about much, he said.
“Last six months, it’s been, ‘Oh well, it’s not here so don’t worry,’” he said. “Long-term effects, you can’t see.”