Southern California environment news and trends

Science chill after the BP spill: why lawsuits, lawmakers and journalists make researchers nervous

Courtesy of Rich Camilli, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Crew members in the Gulf periodically need to take extraordinary safety precautions from the hydrocarbon fumes in the air. Sean Sylva, Chris Reddy, Rich Camilli, and Lt. Jarrett Parker (USCG) were getting ready to deploy the autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) Sentry in the Gulf of Mexico.

An op-ed written by two Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute scientists in the Boston Globe this week is heating up a debate about how chilly legal scrutiny can be when it comes to ocean science.

Back in 2010, marine geochemist Chris Reddy and environmental engineer Richard Camilli pinged the plume of spilt oil in Gulf Coast waters with sonar. Remote-operated vehicles thousands of feet below the ocean’s surface helped tell them where the oil was. They analyzed the makeup of that subsurface plume and calculated an average flow rate of 57,000 barrels of oil a day, for a total release of 4.9 million barrels of oil.

That last part is the sticky wicket. Spilling oil in federal waters tends to yield fines, and in this case, quite large ones. The outcome of federal and scientific calculations is worth billions of dollars, and as a result, BP has been very interested in making Reddy, Camilli and other researchers show their work.