GAO calls for additional crude oil dispersants research

Federal agencies have spent more than $15.5 million on chemical dispersant research to combat offshore crude oil spills since fiscal 2000, but more work is needed, particularly on subsurface and Arctic applications, the Government Accountability Office said in a report released on June 29.

GAO said most of the 106 projects were funded by the US Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement and its predecessor, the US Minerals Management Service; the National Science Foundation; and the US Environmental Protection Agency. More than half the funding came after the 2010 Macondo deepwater well accident and oil spill into the Gulf of Mexico, the report indicated.

More than 40% of the projects focused at least in part on dispersant effectiveness, including 28 funded by BSEE and MMS on dispersant types’ efficacy on different types of crude and under different ocean conditions, it said. “In contrast, relatively few projects were focused on applying dispersants subsurface or in the Arctic,” it continued. “Specifically, NSF funded three projects looking at the use and effects of subsurface dispersant application, and BSEE and EPA funded the eight projects related to the use of chemical dispersants in Arctic or cold water environments.”

Government, industry, and academic scientists have studied the effects and use of chemical dispersants to help inform oil spill response efforts and decision making, GAO said in a letter to the two members who requested the report, Reps. Brad Miller (D-NC), ranking minority member of the Science, Space, and Technology Committee’s Energy and Environment Subcommittee, and Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), the Natural Resources Committee’s ranking minority member.

“Research on dispersants involves a range of interdisciplinary areas, including the effectiveness of such chemicals in dispersing oil; the fate and transport of dispersants and chemically dispersed oil—that is, where they ultimately go and how they travel with the water; aquatic toxicity and other environmental effects of dispersants and chemically dispersed oil; the modeling and monitoring of dispersant use; and human health effects,” the letter said.

Challenges, difficulties

Researchers face resource, scientific, and communication challenges related to dispersant research, according to the report. Agency officials, experts, and specialists identified inconsistent and limited levels of funding as a challenge to developing research on the use and effects of chemical dispersants, it noted.

“For example, because support for dispersant research fluctuates, with temporary increases following a major spill, it is difficult for federal agencies to fund longer term studies, such as those needed to understand chronic toxicological effects of dispersants,” the report said. “In addition, researchers face scientific challenges with respect to dispersants, including being able to conduct research that replicates realistic oil spill conditions. Conducting research in the open ocean faces several logistical barriers, and laboratory experiments are unable to fully approximate the scale and complexity of ocean conditions.”

Finally, agency officials, experts, and specialists told GAO investigators that it can be a challenge to communicate and track research, it said. Although some organizations have attempted to compile lists of dispersant-related research, there currently is no mechanism which tracks such research across all sources and highlights past and ongoing research projects, the report said.

“For example, the Interagency Coordinating Committee on Oil Pollution Research, a multiagency committee chaired by the US Coast Guard, maintains a list of federally sponsored oil spill related research, but does not track or cross-reference related research that has been funded solely by industry or nongovernmental sources,” it said.

GAO recommended that the interagency coordinating committee periodically provide updates on key nonfederal dispersant research. It also urged the committee to ensure that subsurface and Arctic research become a higher priority. The US Departments of the Interior, Commerce, and Homeland Security, and EPA generally concurred with the recommendations, GAO said.

Contact Nick Snow at

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