The Significance of One Email: How Prepared Are We for the Next Major Oil Spill?

In September 2010, I was a scientist working at the Unified Command in New Orleans, the official operating center responding to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. With the fifth anniversary of the spill today, everyone is asking me: Are we more prepared for the next spill? Perhaps the best answer to that question arrived a few weeks ago in a single email.

The email was from one of the lead federal officials responsible for responding to oil spills after an inquiry from one of my academic colleagues. It was sent the day after the April 1st explosion of a Mexican oil-processing rig in the Gulf of Mexico that killed four people and created a slick, informing the recipients what happened, what was known, and the chances of oil reaching U.S. waters.

It was the recipient list that made it a milestone event. The email was sent not only to .govs and .mils, but .edus. So not just employees in many government agencies, but also to several scientists from academic institutions who have been conducting research in the Gulf of Mexico.

I flashback to the spring and summer of 2010 while oil was flowing unstoppably from the seafloor 5,000 feet deep in the Gulf. U.S. officials and industry had an impressive track record responding to the hundreds of oil spills that occurred every year. But those spills, unlike Deepwater Horizon, were in shallow waters. Government officials had little need to keep abreast of such things as oceanographic robots equipped to operate at great depths or biological communities living on the deep seafloor. They were generally unaware of singular and valuable assets and technology that academia had available.

Academic scientists, on the other hand, had little incentive and few avenues to add their expertise. These were two cultures that infrequently met and were —> Read More