Lubchenco: Sound science played role in gulf oil-spill response

Oct. 11, 2010
Good science, from wisdom gained responding to earlier offshore spills to new information obtained in the last 6 months, will continue to drive the federal response to the Apr. 20 Macondo well accident and subsequent massive crude oil spill, National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration Administrator Jane Lubchenco said on Sept. 30.

Good science, from wisdom gained responding to earlier offshore spills to new information obtained in the last 6 months, will continue to drive the federal response to the Apr. 20 Macondo well accident and subsequent massive crude oil spill, National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration Administrator Jane Lubchenco said on Sept. 30.

"The science that has been conducted has been solid, but even better understanding enables better response and restoration," Lubchenco told the American Bar Association's Section of Environment, Energy, and Resources (SEER) Law Summit in New Orleans. "A hard look at the track record will lead to wisdom and improve response and restoration."

She said NOAA had a fivefold role in responding to the spill from the Macondo well: to conduct and share science, keep seafood safe, protect wildlife and habitat, assess damage, and restore the injured natural resources. "For each of these five tasks that NOAA does, there is a component of law, a component of science, and a component of communication," she said.

Good science began to guide federal government decisions in the early hours after an estimated 700,000 gal of diesel fuel ignited and caused the Deepwater Horizon semisubmersible to catch fire and explode, killing 11 workers, after the Macondo well blew out, at 11 p.m. CDT on Apr. 20, Lubchenco said.

By 2 a.m., NOAA had supplied the newly constituted United Command (UC) in Robert, La., with a forecast showing where oil would be headed if it appeared, she continued. Less than 20 hr later, NOAA's National Weather Service office in Slidell, La., issued the first spot weather forecast at the UC's request. Lubchenco said special forecasts consider time, topography, and weather to provide more detailed information than regular zone forecasts.

'Critical elements'

"These two NOAA science tools—oil trajectory forecasts and specialized weather forecasts—were critical elements of the good science that enabled informed response throughout the effort," she said. "They gave us the vital information needed to mount a smart, tactical response. They told responders where to deploy boom, where to skim and burn, and they told us which fisheries might have to be closed. Day after day, from the early hours after the explosion until 4 months later when the sheen of oil had not been visible on the surface for 3 weeks, these tools provided information that told us where the oil was headed 24, 48, and 72 hr in advance."

Lubchenco noted that scientists in NOAA's war room in Seattle ran oceanographic and atmospheric models day after day, using the latest satellite, plane, and ship observations to initialize models and predict patterns of movement. NWS meteorologists produced spot weather forecasts, with more than 4,000 coming from its Slidell office alone, she said.

"When responders had to make decisions about where to lay the boom, the information was at hand to inform their decisions: weather forecasts, trajectory maps, wind, tide and current data. Science was transformed into a tool that people could use for real-time decision making," Lubchenco maintained.

Science also provided guidance for seafood safety, NOAA's second concern, she said. "To protect people, NOAA closed fisheries as the first line of defense to prevent contaminated seafood from entering the marketplace," she explained. "The fishermen in Plaquemines Parish supported our closing oiled waters, but they also wanted life lines—safe places to fish. And so scientific information—the location of oil and forecasts showing us where the oil likely was going—guided NOAA's decisions on where we would close fisheries and where areas could stay open safely."

Lubchenco noted that 37% or 88,522 sq miles of federal waters was off-limits for fishing at the height of the closures. NOAA reopened 2,927 sq miles of waters off eastern Louisiana, directly south and southwest of East Bay, to commercial and recreational fishing on Oct. 5, just 6 days after she spoke. It was the eighth reopening in federal waters since July 22 and came after consultation with the US Food and Drug Administration under a reopening protocol agreed to by NOAA, FDA, and Gulf Coast states. The action meant 90% of the waters in the US Gulf Coast were considered suitable for fishing again.

Wildlife protection

NOAA also moved almost immediately after the explosion to begin collecting baseline data to protect wildlife and habitat in the gulf, its administrator said. "We conducted overflights almost daily to monitor marine mammals, turtles, specific fisheries, wetlands, and marshes. NOAA research ships initiated ongoing investigations of the impact of the oil on marine mammals and fisheries," she said.

Science also played a critical part in assessing damage, NOAA's fourth responsibility under OPA's spill response provisions, Lubchenco said. The agency is one of three federal trustees for the National Resource Damage Assessment process, which aims to compensate the public for injuries to natural resources and the losses of their ecological resources. Within the first week after the spill began, NOAA convened cotrustees to organize collaborative teams to coordinate data collection in the gulf and across the five Gulf Coast states, she said. "On any given day, more than 40 teams from across NOAA are in the field collecting data on these resources and the impact of the spill," she added.

Crude stopped flowing from Macondo nearly 5 million bbl and 3 months after the Deepwater Horizon exploded, and the well itself was declared dead 2 months later, Lubchenco said. NOAA crews have continued working, searching for any remaining oil and dispersants, and trying to broaden understanding of the event's consequences, she said.

"Though much of the oil beneath the surface was dispersed into droplets less than a diameter of the human hair, and although this dispersed oil was measured in concentrations of parts per million to parts per billion, diluted and dispersed do not mean benign," she said. "We continue to have grave concerns about the impact that this subsurface oil may have had on vulnerable species and young stages of diverse marine life."

NOAA has tested offshore and near-shore waters extensively, and has begun what she termed "a massive, comprehensive, collaborative effort to monitor the fate of oil and dispersants subsurface, adding to the array of samples already in hand. Our goal is to understand the fate and effects of the oil and dispersants under the surface and at the bottom of the sea. From what this scientific information tells us, appropriate evaluation and response measures can be devised."

In assessing the spill's impacts, Lubchenco said government scientists and agencies cannot look at each species in isolation and only what is happening now. "We must ask the hard questions of how this spill impacts this and future generations of species within the ecosystem, and how those changes in turn affect the ecosystem service provided to the people of the gulf," she said. "This cannot be accomplished in an instant. It will take time. And because full recovery can take a very long time, we cannot wait for assessment to be completed before restoration begins…. In short, we will continue to be vigilant in pursuing good science. And we will share that knowledge broadly."

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