A group of independent scientists, frustrated and dumbfounded by the continued lack of the most basic data about the 77-day-old BP oil disaster, has put together a crash project intended to definitively measure how much oil has spilled and where and how it is spreading throughout the waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
An all-star team of top oceanographers, chemists, engineers and other scientists could be ready to head out to the well site on two fully-equipped research vessels on about a week's notice. But they need to get the go-ahead -- and about $8.4 million -- from BP or the federal government or both. And that does not appear imminent.
The test is designed to provide responders to future deep-sea oil catastrophes with valuable information. But, to be blunt, it would also fill an enormous gap in the response to this one.
Federal estimates of the flow have over time gone from laughably low to laughably imprecise to just plain unpersuasive. And it took more than a month for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to take the marine science community's concerns seriously enough to embark on substantive missions to explore the potentially vast amounts of oil that are lurking beneath the surface with possibly long-term and devastating effects.
Team leader Ira Leifer, a researcher at the Marine Science Institute of the University of California, Santa Barbara, released the group's 88-page science plan (SEE BELOW) late last week. Leifer has been pitching a variety of scientific missions to BP since May 1, and has yet hear word one from the company. But this time, he is more hopeful, in part because his team represents "a significant fraction of the marine hydrocarbon research community" and in part because of Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), Chairman of the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming.
Markey, who successfully pressured BP to release live video of the leak, said through a spokesman on Tuesday: "Throughout this disaster, I have pushed for the involvement of independent scientists in evaluating the magnitude and consequences of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Dr. Ira Leifer and his colleagues have put together a proposal that could help answer some of the fundamental questions about this catastrophe and help us prepare should there be a next one. It is worth serious consideration by BP." Leifer said he is also talking directly to federal agencies that could conceivably bankroll the mission -- and demand that BP give the scientists the necessary access.
Leifer said his team would ideally begin its experiments at the well site, capturing data and imagery with remotely-operated vehicles that would produce authoritative measurements of the flow. The team would then shift its focus up through the water column and along with the current, to explore how the oil is interacting with the water.
"The idea is to understand why is the oil where it is," Leifer told the Huffington Post. And what parts of the oil, too.
"In my mind the really important thing is where are the toxic components going, and what are they killing?" he said. What's coming out of the well is not one homogeneous substance, he explained. Some components of oil and gas are highly toxic and carcinogenic, while others are relatively benign, and the components react differently to the elements.
So some of the key questions, Leifer said, are: "Where in the water column are the more dangerous components of the oil going? And therefore what is the most likely effect going to be on the part of the ecosystem they are acting with? And if that part of the ecosystem is destroyed, is there a cascading effect?"
Leifer, who is also a member of the federal government flow rate group, said that even his own group's current estimates, "such as they are, are still based on limited data and assumptions."
And the lack of accurate information has taken its toll, he said. If BP had properly understood what was going on 5,000 feet below the surface, it never would have attempted to stop it with a "top hat." And had they realized the pressure from the oil reserves was beyond the threshold for "top kill" they wouldn't have wasted time on that, either.
"We could have effective containment systems available now, if we'd had the measurements," he said.
Learning from this spill is essential for the future, as well, he said. There is no longer any doubt that a substantial amount of the oil remains undersea. But, Leifer noted: "Until recently this was considered a matter of debate at very high levels. We shouldn't have debates like that. We should know how to respond to it."
Leifer added: "I hope that people who love the Gulf, love the beaches and the wildlife and fishing and seafood and the Gulf lifestyle will contact their congressman and senators and radio stations to request that science gets the green light. This is critical so that we can respond to this catastrophe with knowledge and also have the best science available so that we can respond to any future accidents with appropriate response equipment and strategies to protect the environment."
BP did not return a call from the Huffington Post.
"They have not been an agent for insuring that learning occurs in the past," Leifer noted drily.
The plan is called "Deep Spill 2." The first "Deep Spill was a 2001 test off the coast of Norway that involved a mere 16,000 gallons of diesel -- but found that very little of the oil made its way to the surface.
READ THE PROJECT PLAN:
Dan Froomkin is senior Washington correspondent for the Huffington Post. You can send him an e-mail, bookmark his page; subscribe to his RSS feed, follow him on Twitter, friend him on Facebook, and/or become a fan and get e-mail alerts when he writes.