Six years after historic Deepwater Horizon spill, documentary examines the science

The Deepwater Horizon burns in 2010.

US Coast Guard/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Q&A: Six years after historic Deepwater Horizon spill, documentary examines the science

Six years ago today, an explosion and fire on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico killed 11 workers and unleashed the largest oil spill in U.S. history. It also launched a massive scramble by scientists to understand the extent and impacts of the spill. One researcher involved in that effort was fisheries biologist and marine ecologist Steven Murawski, who at the time of the spill was chief scientist of the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service. Now, Murawski directs the Center for the Integrated Modeling and Analysis of the Gulf Ecosystem (C-IMAGE) at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg—and he is one scientist featured in a new documentary, Dispatches From the Gulf, that examines the spill, the research effort, and what scientists have learned. The film, produced by Emmy award–winning filmmakers Marilyn and Hal Weiner as part of their Journey to Planet Earth television series, debuted today on YouTube.

Both C-IMAGE and the filmmakers received funding from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative, an independent science group established by a $500 million donation from BP, the oil giant that owned the well.

Murawski is shown in the film with a team conducting a sediment and fish survey, a project the scientists nicknamed the mud and blood cruise. He talked with ScienceInsider about the ongoing science surrounding the historic spill. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Q: Did you have any idea of the magnitude of the spill, or what it would mean for your work, when you first heard about it?

A: I was at a conference in Japan, and I get this phone call at like midnight: “We’ve got this well. We don’t know how much is coming out.” I said, “Well, let’s go out and get some baseline samples” [that could be used to compare pre- and postspill conditions]. But by the time I got back, it was just crazy. I just spent the next 6 months running around the Gulf.

Q: Were you ever able to get those baseline samples?

A: Some. But that is a big take-home message. Every one of the scientists will tell you that we are not prepared even now. We do not have enough baseline samples. And that is so important. Given the fact that this industry is out there, and it’s a risky business. It should actually be a requirement to periodically gather baselines, like every other polluting business. Wastewater treatment plants gather periodic data on what they are discharging. And the oil industry has avoided any mention of gathering routine baseline data about what they actually do. It would have been so much easier for us to find out what the Deepwater Horizon effect was, if the regulators had required simple sampling of sediment, water, and fish. It doesn’t have to be onerous.

Q: What do you think scientists would be surprised to know about this research effort?

A: They’d be impressed with the scale. When you invest $500 million in something, you better come up with some pretty interesting things. My consortium does everything from [sampling] fish and sediment to working at a high-pressure facility [in Hamburg, Germany] where we are replicating the Deepwater Horizon well. And we can introduce what we call “live oil,” which is oil that has natural gas in it. That makes a total difference in terms of the efficacy of dispersant [chemicals designed to break up spilled oil into small droplets], and the problems that you have to understand. There are literally thousands of people working on all aspects of this thing.

Q: What are you learning about the dispersants?

A: We’ve done toxicity testing for a long time on oil directly. And we’ve done some toxicity testing on the dispersants; they’ve been around 30 years or more. What’s really unique is when you combine the two. It’s almost like a binary weapon. [The dispersants] allow the toxic parts of the oil to go across the cell membranes. When you change big drops into small drops, they become more bioavailable.

The Hobson’s choice responders were faced with was, “would you rather fight this oil at sea, or up in the marsh?” And I can tell you, there is no legitimate way to remediate oil out of a saltwater marsh.

But the case on dispersants is still open, on whether it is a good idea or a bad one. The unique part of Deepwater Horizon was the application of dispersants at the well head. And I can tell you, from my colleagues who are doing high-pressure work, we still don’t know whether it did any good or not. There’s been what I’d call a rush to judgment about the efficacy of dispersants at the well head. And the oil companies are developing the tools and methods to inject them at the wellhead should there be another deep water blowout.  But I think the science on that is undercooked right now.

Q: Has there ever been any interference from BP?

A: None that I’ve seen. I know they were interested when I published a paper on the incidence of skin lesions [in fish that rose immediately after the spill and fell afterward]; they didn’t necessarily like that. I understand at one point they hired a consulting firm to replicate my work.

Q: What has been the biggest surprise in your research?

A: Oil doesn’t necessarily float. There’s a lot of that oil on the bottom. We’re seeing this not only with Deepwater Horizon, but my colleagues and I have been down in Mexico in the last year looking for traces of an oil spill that occurred 37 years ago [at the IXTOC I well], and we did find traces of that oil in [seafloor sediments] in virtually undegraded condition. It tells us a lot about where that oil is going to be in terms of Deepwater Horizon … after I’m dead.

Q: So where is the oil that’s still out there?

A: There’s an amount in the deep ocean. You’ll never see it. On the other hand, there’s also a substantial amount in shallow areas, where if you can dig deep enough, you can find a layer that’s pretty much sequestered underneath [other sediment]. What’s more problematic, though, is offshore near Louisiana there’s a lot of oil that’s in these sedimented [aggregates], and every time you get a severe storm, these [aggregates] are going to be cast up onto the beach. That’s going to happen for decades.

Q: What do you see as the overall goal of this huge Gulf research initiative?

A: We’re trying to get to some of these problems that the government has never had enough money to solve. And sure, we can publish papers, but at the end of the day, how does it affect public policy? Drilling policy, safety issues, response strategies. We’re trying to do science for the public good, not just to publish papers. When we have another blow out in deep water—which is inevitable—will we actually respond better, faster, and with a clearer understanding of what’s going on? If we can’t do that with $500 million, then shame on us.