WASHINGTON — As an unprecedented amount of oil fouls the Gulf of Mexico, research scientists and ocean experts say the Obama administration's efforts to discover the magnitude of the damage are surprisingly uncoordinated.
If the government's higher estimates are accurate, the BP oil blowout already is the world's worst accidental oil spill ever.
Despite a spill that may already total more than 150 million gallons of oil, however, neither federal officials nor BP has mounted a speedy, focused inquiry to understand its impact.
There's no comprehensive strategy for scientific inquiry in the gulf. Therefore, there's no central system for organizing the research, sharing information or avoiding duplication.
Two and a half months after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and sank, little is known about the present location of the plumes of oil and dispersants, where they're heading or how toxic the brew will be to creatures in its path.
Since BP is providing the bulk of the funds to study the oil spill, some scientists question whether firm's potential liability for future environmental damage could compromise the independence and scope of the scientific research in the gulf.
That so much about the spill remains unknown is "kind of mind-boggling," said Frank Muller-Karger, a professor of biological oceanography at the University of South Florida. He said that one of the biggest problems he sees is the lack of a "war-room-type scenario" to coordinate all the research.
'All hands on deck'
Christopher F. D'Elia, the dean of the School of the Coast and Environment at Louisiana State University, agrees.
"In my view, this is one of those all-hands-on-deck moments, and we need to be devoting the resources necessary to understand this spill in every dimension regardless of who pays, because ultimately we'll pay a lot more as a nation if we don't do it right."
To be sure, federal officials and the Deepwater Horizon Unified Command have described a growing research effort. Since Memorial Day, six research vessels and 10 underwater monitors have been deployed. Just this week, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution - a pre-eminent research organization in Massachusetts - launched an unmanned research vehicle with a sensor to detect oil.
And Friday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration agreed, at the urging of a group of East Coast senators, to begin making long-term projections for the path of the spill and its potential impact beyond gulf shores.
"Coastal communities up and down the Atlantic ... have raised concerns over the BP spill getting caught in the Loop Current and affecting the East Coast," said Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., who led the request. "Science-based probabilities like these help these communities understand the current threat of oil reaching their shores and will help ensure full preparedness."
Scientists seek clarity
Scientists involved in the research, however, say they remain in the dark and don't know if enough is being done.
A group of more than 200 federal and university ocean scientists called for central coordination of the research.
They also appealed for more research on the extent of subsurface plumes of oil, how oil and gas is mixed in the water, how the oil is changing over time and where it's moving, and what the chemicals from the oil and the dispersants used to break it down will do to the ocean and its creatures.
D'Elia of Louisiana State University said the federal government should do more to share what its own scientists are learning and bring in outside researchers.
"Whatever the federal government is up to - it may be well-planned internally within the federal government, but the involvement of the outside research world is inadequate in my view," he said.
The reaction by scientists to the Obama administration's handling of the research echoes criticism of the government overall response. Governors and other state officials along the Gulf Coast complain about the lack of resources and about the slowness of a cleanup. Residents rail at BP for the loss of their jobs, for its claims process and for BP's efforts to limit its legal liability. Others say BP has manipulated information, making estimates of the amount of gushing crude impossible to determine and assessments of the health effects on workers, residents and wildlife difficult to make.
However, the criticism about the scientific research into the spill is widespread.
"It's a huge and difficult problem. This is very, very challenging," D'Elia said. "But what we're seeing right now is very little in the way of federal resources have been allocated to the external research community to do work."