The Great Gulf Experiment

Two years ago today, a huge natural experiment was set in motion. Its costs were enormous. The explosion of British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon rig resulted in the loss of eleven lives and the spillage of an unprecedented 4.9 million barrels of oil into the surrounding Gulf waters, leading BP to put aside $20 billion to cover potential costs. But as the company’s financial outlays continue to mount, is science sufficiently cashing-in on this unique marine experiment?

You have to hand it to BP – they’ve tried hard to make the best of an undeniably bad situation. While an update on efforts to clean-up a huge slippery mess of your own making may not seem an occasion for positive spin, a current BP advertising campaign in the US shows that it can be done.

Amidst images of pristine beaches, idyllic sunsets, succulent seafood and jolly looking pelicans, Gulf resident and BP representative Iris Cross cheerfully reports that “all beaches and waters are now open, for everyone to enjoy”, with many areas on the Gulf coast “having their best tourism figures in years”. Conspicuous in their absence are the words oil, damage, accident and death, as well as “oops”, negligence, lawsuit, and, indeed, sorry.

Interestingly, nestled in this absolute goldmine of not-very-subtle audience manipulation are a number of references to the science now being carried out as a result of the disaster – while the phrase “environmental damage” obviously didn’t make it past the oil giant’s PR police, BP’s establishment of a $500 million fund to research the impact of the spill was clearly deemed spin-able.

The fund, otherwise known as the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI), has so far announced $164 million in grants to research institutions investigating the effects of the disaster, with the aim of “improving society’s ability to understand, respond to and mitigate the impacts of petroleum pollution and related stressors of the marine and coastal ecosystems”.

Now, to be honest, when I first heard about this fund I wasn’t entirely convinced. After all, it’s one thing to talk about a $500 million fund, but two years on from the event, where’s the other $336 million? And who gets to decide where the money goes? Is this really an attempt to make it up to Nemo and his friends or just a PR-friendly way for BP to do research that will benefit its business? And is it really possible for marine science to be conducted independently when funded by an oil company?

A little digging suggested that I was justified in my suspicions … to some extent. While less than a third of the total $500 million pot has been distributed to date, BP’s commitment lasts for ten years so there is still plenty of time for further investment, particularly if the funding is used to tackle more general issues such as research into spill-remediation technologies. Encouragingly, GoMRI also explicitly stipulates that “all research will be independent of BP, and the results will be published in peer-reviewed scientific journals with no requirement for BP approval”. So that’s a relief.

But what about the distribution of funds in the first place? If BP aren’t able to block publication, could they potentially just turn the tap off on research they don’t like the look of?

In a nutshell – yes, probably, if they really wanted to. Funding decisions at GoMRI are made by a twenty-member Research Board, 10 of whom have been selected by BP. The purpose of this Board is to ensure the “intellectual quality, research effectiveness, and academic independence” of GoMRI programmes, putting ten of its members in the somewhat awkward position of having to ensure that other research institutions are independent from the oil and gas industry, while owing their own seat on the Board to BP.

It may also be noteworthy that one member at least, while displaying exemplary academic and intellectual credentials, nevertheless has strong industry ties. Raymond Orbach, having served at the Department of Energy under the decidedly oil-friendly President George W. Bush, is now Director of the Energy Institute at the University of Texas, (yes, fuel-guzzling-oil-drilling Texas), an establishment that endorses industry-friendly environmental policy and has strong oil and gas representation on its own advisory board. Hmmm … conflict of interests anyone?

Nevertheless, science should not bite the hand that feeds it. Oil spills may be bad for the environment, but they are also bad for business, and it’s in everyone’s best interest to mitigate the risk of future spills and attempt to minimise the damage when they do occur. For once, what’s good for BP is also good for the manatees.

BP are certainly making the most of their purportedly philanthropic contribution to science, and it is perhaps unrealistic to expect industry-funded research to be perfectly independent, but – and this is a big “but” – they were not obliged to establish this fund, and $500 million is a lot better than nothing. So, for now, as per their slightly cheesy ad campaign, I recommend that we let BP enjoy their moment in the (airbrushed) sun and smile as we squeeze every penny out of their great Gulf fund.

Image: flickr | SkyTruth

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