Last May BP promised to spend $500 million on oil spill research relating to its big Gulf of Mexico oil spill. "We must make every effort to understand (the) impact" of the spill "on the people and environment of the Gulf Coast," said BP CEO Tony Hayward in a press release. There is an urgent need to ensure that the scientific community has access to the samples and the raw data it needs to begin this work." Hopefully, this means BP will provide data to researchers.

In BP's press release it promised to pay for R&D to answer important questions including: 1. Where are the oil, the dispersed oil and the dispersant going under the action of ocean currents? 2. How do oil, the dispersed oil and the dispersant behave on the seabed, in the water column, on the surface and on the shoreline? 3. What are the impacts of the oil, the dispersed oil and the dispersant on the seabed, the water column, the surface and the shoreline? 4. How do accidental releases of oil compare to natural seepage from the seabed? 5. What is the impact of dispersant on the oil? 6. How will the oil, the dispersed oil, and the dispersant interact with tropical storms, and will this interaction impact the seabed, the water column and the shoreline?

Crude oil dispersants

I have been concerned about the fact that the dispersant being used in the Gulf was developed nearly a generation ago. Are there no improved products available? Shouldn't there be R&D on new, more effective, more environmentally friendly crude oil dispersants? In early May I contacted several high-level American Chemical Society officials urging that ACS advocate the need for such research with the appropriate federal government officials. I have received no information on whether such discussions have taken place. So it's nice to know that Congress is taking an interest. This also represents a commercial opportunity for industrial lab managers.

Other industrial R&D opportunities include improved oil well drilling and completion methods and design of improved blowout preventers.

Biological research

BP's program also represents an opportunity for academic researchers. While BP America chairman Lamar McKay was testifying before Congress last week, Rep. Steve Kagen, (D-Wis.) asked him to "commit to funding any and all studies to look at the long-term consequences of the dispersal agents that you're now using within the Gulf."

Last Monday Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.) pressed BP to immediately begin a nationwide search for research projects to investigate the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and its effects on marine life. He is concerned that delays in awarding the funds BP promised and possibly an overly narrow distribution of funds to a limited number of researchers would impair the value of the research. "Failure to start collecting data and conducting research now on the spills' effects on delicate marshlands and fisheries, the impact of underwater oil plumes, and other critical issues will make it impossible to understand the full effect of this spill 10, 20, or 30 years from now," Capps said. "It's essential that BP get this money out the door as soon as possible so scientists around the country can begin working to understand the catastrophic impacts an oil spill has on the marine environment." He also wrote Tony Hayward directly urging that the company begin distributing research funds as soon as possible after peer-review of the research proposals.