The Significance of One Email: How Prepared Are We for the Next Major Oil Spill?

In September 2010, I was a scientist working at the Unified Command in New Orleans, the official operating center responding to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. With the fifth anniversary of the spill today, everyone is asking me: Are we more prepared for the next spill? Perhaps the best answer to that question arrived a few weeks ago in a single email.

The email was from one of the lead federal officials responsible for responding to oil spills after an inquiry from one of my academic colleagues. It was sent the day after the April 1st explosion of a Mexican oil-processing rig in the Gulf of Mexico that killed four people and created a slick, informing the recipients what happened, what was known, and the chances of oil reaching U.S. waters.

It was the recipient list that made it a milestone event. The email was sent not only to .govs and .mils, but .edus. So not just employees in many government agencies, but also to several scientists from academic institutions who have been conducting research in the Gulf of Mexico.

I flashback to the spring and summer of 2010 while oil was flowing unstoppably from the seafloor 5,000 feet deep in the Gulf. U.S. officials and industry had an impressive track record responding to the hundreds of oil spills that occurred every year. But those spills, unlike Deepwater Horizon, were in shallow waters. Government officials had little need to keep abreast of such things as oceanographic robots equipped to operate at great depths or biological communities living on the deep seafloor. They were generally unaware of singular and valuable assets and technology that academia had available.

Academic scientists, on the other hand, had little incentive and few avenues to add their expertise. These were two cultures that infrequently met and were unaware of one another’s perspectives.

In September 2010, I was asked to join the Unified Command to serve as a liaison between federal officials and the academic community. I saw that some federal officials were bitter toward my colleagues and me, and much of it was justified. They thought we did not appreciate their efforts and successes and that we were naïve about their shorter-term responsibilities to control the disaster. And that academics did not understand that occasionally our high-handed comments to the press forced them to respond and took precious time away from them performing their urgent mission.

The unprecedented Deepwater Horizon disaster created an unprecedented intersection of stakeholders. I would wager that the federal official who sent the recent email on the Gulf spill and her predecessors had written similar emails, faxes, and teletypes about past oil spills, small or large, without including academic researchers.

The difference now is that academic scientists got the same email, not a watered-down version, or even worse, a carefully worded message to “stay away.”

And for all the lumps that BP has received, it can be recognized for its efforts. In many instances, it too recognized the value of openness and transparency when working with academic scientists, who might have been considered antagonists in the past, to solve problems. In 2012, for example, when I was investigating a sheen of oil near the Deepwater Horizon site, I received satellite information and other invaluable insights from BP, with no strings attached. BP has committed up to $500 million dollars to fund independent research via the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GOMRI).

Before Deepwater Horizon, there were few meetings for much interaction among the federal, academic, and industry stakeholders and media to cover the results. The GOMRI annual meeting has now provided a forum for them to meet, exchange ideas, share data, and begin collaborations.

Academic, federal, and industry responders should not be a single integrated team. There needs to be “checks and balances,” and it would be unreasonable to believe that a broad number of people with different jobs could act cohesively. But we now recognize the net benefit of collaboration. In fact, former NOAA Jane Lubchenco has stated that the most fruitful collaborative efforts during the disaster were with academics who had preexisting relationships with responders. I am part of a team of academics, current and past federal officials, and oil spill responders to discuss and provide better working solutions to these issues.

Retired U.S. Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, who oversaw the Deepwater Horizon response, said countless times that a crisis is no time to exchange business cards. A silver lining to the deepwater disaster is that it compelled previously disparate cultures to introduce themselves and join forces. We will be better prepared when the next major spill occurs.

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