To help fund the ongoing research initiatives on the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, BP has agreed to give $25 million in grants to universities in Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi – with $10 million going to USF’s Florida Institute of Oceanography.
William Hogarth, dean of the USF College of Marine Science, said the grants, which are the first in a $500 million commitment to study the effects of the spill, according to the Associated Press, will help researchers tackle the “unknowns” – unanswered questions about the disaster that are stalling progress.
The money will help fund groups like the Oil Spill Academic Task Force, a group of scientists and scholars from private and public colleges that are dedicated to investigating the effects of the oil on marine life and the environment, Hogarth said.
“BP has no influence on how we do things, the money we get from them will come with no strings attached,” he said. “We will do science based on science.”
To tackle some of the unknowns, USF researchers have begun conducting studies to get baseline data about the distribution, composition and ecological interactions of oil and dispersants.
Susan Bell, chair of the Department of Integrative Biology at USF, said the problems stemming from the oil spill are complex and could impact the gulf ecosystems in a number of different ways.
“It’s absolutely devastating to realize the potential for large scale destruction,” Bell said. “It’s the type of thing you don’t know how to react to.”
According to the St. Petersburg Times, oil is still leaking at a rate of 35,000 to 60,000 barrels a day from the Deepwater Horizon oil well, which exploded April 20.
Bell said a major concern is that the disaster spans such a large area that many organisms cannot escape the pollution.
“Organisms could die outright,” she said. “Populations can be terribly impacted.”
According to the AP, marine organisms are showing up in “surprisingly shallow water just off the Florida coast,” indicating to researchers that their natural habitats have become “badly polluted.”
Crowding along the shoreline also has researchers worried that marine life could start to die off as they run out of oxygen or are easily devoured by predators.
Hogarth said that since Florida has the “best fishery – particularly recreational – in the gulf,” drawing in what he estimates to be between $6 billion to $9 billion a year in revenue for Florida, this could have detrimental economic repercussions for the state.
During the company’s Congressional hearing Thursday, BP CEO Tony Hayward said the reservoir that feeds the leaking well probably still holds about 2.1 billion gallons of oil. At the current flow rate, it would take two to four years for all the oil to leak if the well can’t be capped, he said.
The grant follows a recent $100 million request made by Florida Gov. Charlie Crist to assist the state with cleanup and address ecological concerns resulting from the spill.