Chris Reddy is an ocean chemist who studies oil spills and other environmental pollutants. He has been intensely involved in research on the Gulf oil spill, making several trips to the region and spending time at Central Command as a science liaison. He was part of the team that confirmed the presence of large quantities of oil from the BP rig deep underwater. His commentaries on scientist-media relations have also appeared here on Climatide.
So, of course, when I ran into him at a local coffee shop on Monday, I asked him how he was feeling about the upcoming anniversary of the spill. Now Chris doesn’t mince words. But I was surprised at the frustration I heard in his response. He felt strongly that the media and the general public were missing the point of the day. He later forwarded me a copy of an op-ed piece on the topic that ran in today’s Providence Journal. Eloquent as it was, I still had some questions for Chris. Here’s a lightly edited version of our conversation.
You say the anniversary of the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig is “just another day” for scientists and that its importance is being overplayed. Why?
The anniversary is important, don’t get me wrong. But I’m a little bit frustrated. The anniversary should be a day of mourning. I think there’s some decorum that’s lacking when environmental groups are having fairs on the anniversary of the spill. I think they’re taking advantage of the deaths of people to push their agenda. I met a lot of people in the Gulf and I know what they went through during the spill, and I don’t know that some of those groups fully appreciate that human dimension.
But isn’t the anniversary an opportunity to refocus public attention on the event and reflect on what we’ve learned about the impacts of the oil spill?
Everybody wants to know an answer. How many birds and dolphins has the oil spill killed? But this anniversary isn’t like a 16th birthday when you know you can get your driver’s license. When you turn one from an oil spill, it doesn’t have any real significance.
I recognize people’s curiosity. And scientists are working hard. But it’s going to take time. In our world, the science world, there’s just no expectation that there’s a date when we’ll solve all the problems.
We have all these crime scene dramas and medical dramas on TV where data is available instantly, or within hours or days if they’re trying to be realistic. But we’re not going to have resolution in 42 minutes. If we did, it would be too easy. It’s just hard. The Gulf is huge, and we can’t put it in an MRI and see where the oil is and what it’s doing. And this isn’t just one patient; we’re talking about millions and millions and millions of patients, and despite all our efforts we’re missing some or haven’t had time to work through them all yet.
You’ve been to the Gulf several times since the spill, including quite recently. How much oil is still left in and around the Gulf?
The problem is that what I did, and what others did, it’s cherry-picking. We may see oil one place so we say, “Oil’s still there.” But how much oil? Does it matter?
Again, to use the medical analogy: you can’t put the Gulf in an MRI. So the only thing we can do is collect lots of samples. And for this patient, the bloodwork isn’t back yet. We’re talking tens of thousands of samples that have been collected over the past year that have to go through an array of tests and quality controls. So the question is: when do you have enough information to start to tell a story prudently?
Unfortunately, we don’t have the data yet to say “of the hundreds of miles of coast and waters that we’ve surveyed, there is oil at levels of concern over this percentage of the area.” That’s a much more robust result than “we can still see oil here.”
What sort of timescale would be more appropriate? Can we expect to answer some of these questions by the five-year anniversary?
That’s hard. From a chemistry perspective, I think you’ll start to see some reasonable estimates in another year or two. In terms of biological impacts, there’s natural variability and other stressors to take into account. So collectively it’s really hard to get a handle on things and to prove that any changes are due to an oil spill in an area that was already less than pristine.
Not only is it going to be hard to get the data, then someone – or a group of scientists – are going to have to sit down and look at it, think about it, and maybe have some heated discussions about it. There may or may not be a consensus interpretation right away.
You say we don’t have enough information to tell a story responsibly. But some scientists have been saying publicly that there’s oil left and it’s hurting marine life in the Gulf.
There’s a lot of data that’s been presented at conferences or posted on blogs, but until I see it published – peer review doesn’t mean 100% accuracy – but that’s what I’m waiting for so I can examine the data and make my own conclusions. Blogs and posters have some value, but at the end of the day there needs to be a higher level of scrutiny. And I have yet to see that for a lot of things. But that’s because doing the science and writing the papers takes time.
Is there financial support for the kind of ongoing research you’re talking about?
No. Well, yes and no. The only financial support I’ve gotten was a RAPID response grant from the National Science Foundation in May. We’re still working through the data and writing papers, but it’s mostly on our own dime. Certainly, if you get a RAPID response grant, the National Science Foundation will consider a larger follow-up grant, and I’ll be submitting one on August 15th.
But it’s tricky. And it takes time. You have to find the right person to fund your work, and wait for them to request proposals, and then write the proposal. It’s not batting practice, with lots of pitches right down the plate. It’s a baseball game. There are only so many pitches, and few that are in your sweet spot. When there’s a pitch, you’ve got to go for it. And there are a lot of people going for those funds.
What’s happening is that BP has a significant amount of money to dole out for no-strings-attached research through the Gulf Research Initiative. And we expect to get the request for proposals any time now. Once that request comes out, we may see other groups, even federal agencies, respond. But everything is in kind of a holding pattern right now. It’s still not clear how that money will be allocated, so everybody’s waiting.
When it comes to science, there are three things people don’t want to hear: We’re not quite sure. We need more data. We need more funding. But that’s where we are right now.