Published online 14 January 2011 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2011.18

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Gulf-oil studies stalled by scarce samples

Frustration of independent researchers spills out over suspended distribution by BP and US government.

collection of oil from coastal watersNOAA and BP together retain thousands of litres of oil samples from the Deepwater Horizon blowout.REUTERS/Sean Gardner

An estimated three-quarters of a billion litres of oil flowed from the mangled Macondo wellhead after the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Yet since the flood was stemmed in July, samples of that oil have become increasingly scarce for independent researchers hoping to explore the ecological effects of the spill or improve response capabilities. Many now fear that their work, or its legal relevance to the continuing damage-assessment process of the BP blowout, might be limited.

Both BP and the US government collected oil from the spill in various forms, including source oil piped to the surface and oil that became weathered as it made its way towards shore with or without dispersant mixed in. Although some independent researchers were able to obtain samples from these collections, distribution is currently at a standstill.

At least as far back as September, BP began issuing a standard letter to independent researchers who requested samples, stating "Requests for source oil will be delayed…" pending development of protocols for dealing with available oil collected after the blowout. The impetus for ending distribution, BP says, was a general preservation order issued by a federal judge soon after the well was capped, which prohibited any evidence destruction. Although the order does not specifically address the oil samples, BP spokeswoman Hejdi Feick says that the company took a conservative approach in its response.

The standard letter promises that the company will develop protocols "over the next several weeks" to allow resumption of sample distribution — but no date for this has been set, according to Feick. "Our best estimate at the time we stopped providing samples did not account for all of the activity that has been necessary to ensure that BP could meet its legal obligations and resume providing material for researchers," she says.

Damage assessment

US government agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and companies they contract also collected substantial quantities of oil for use in the official Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) process, which is being used to determine BP's liability. Although NRDA trustees filled some sample requests for small quantities, Greg Baker, an environmental scientist at NOAA's Office of Response and Restoration in Seattle, Washington, says that they too had to suspend distribution to be sure that there would be enough oil to support the legal case.

There are still more than 2,000 litres of samples on hand to support the NRDA process, and Baker says that BP should have at least the same amount, or possibly substantially more, because the company and its contractors matched or exceeded all government collection work. BP declined to release any estimates of its stock sizes.

Andrew Zimmerman, a biogeochemist at the University of Florida in Gainesville, began requesting oil samples from BP in July to support research on the effects of the oil on marsh plants and possible clean-up methods. He spent three months bouncing between various contacts before receiving BP's standard letter on 23 September. "It seemed like stall tactics," he says. He accepts the legal motivation but says, "There has to be somebody in charge who can say no to a lawyer."

Andrew Whitehead, a biologist at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, requested samples in September to study effects of the oil on fish. He received the BP letter shortly after, signed by a different BP representative from Zimmerman's letter. "I think the lack of samples will prevent important research from getting done," says Whitehead.

As a backup, Whitehead and his colleagues plan to get crude oil from the region and weather it themselves in outdoor tanks. But he fears that this method could have legal implications. "If I find toxic effects that are made part of the legal process, in court BP could claim that the results are not relevant because the oil is not comparable to what actually got into the marshes."

Ira Leifer, an oil-spill expert at the University of California, Santa Barbara, was part of the US-government-led task force that produced the official flow-rate estimate for the spill. He began requesting samples within days of the initial blowout for work to support efforts to improve remote sensing of surface oil, but eventually gave up.

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He and his colleagues collected their own oil samples by boat and obtained dispersant samples by what he describes as "unofficial means". Leifer says that getting samples from the manufacturer would have required signing a non-disclosure agreement, which he felt would limit the dissemination of their findings.

Working as a representative of the government, Leifer originally thought that getting samples would be relatively easy. "But it didn't work that way," he says. "At the time it was unclear exactly how much was by design and how much was due to the chaotic nature of the response. However, the pattern repeated itself." He thinks that similar to BP's apparent reluctance to release video footage of the spill early on, the lack of sample distribution could be a tactic aimed at minimizing the information ultimately available on spill impacts.

The company disputes this idea. "BP has no intention of withholding samples of the variety of source oils we have collected," says Feick, "except as is essential to ensure that BP retains adequate quantities of each type of oil to satisfy its legal requirements." 

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