"We Didn't Know the Impacts" of Dispersants on Sea Life: Obama Admin


Photo credit: NRDC pix via Flickr/CC BY

As the director of the US Geological Survey and leader of the scientific response to the BP Gulf spill, Marcia McNutt had some interesting things to say about the disaster when she spoke last week at this year's Poptech conference. For one, she admitted that the Obama administration, in deciding to blast the gushing wellhead with hundreds of thousands of gallons of chemical dispersants, "didn't know the impacts" the stuff would have on sea life: McNutt candidly explained that the "decision was made to deploy dispersant at well head -- because of the economy of using it at source rather than surface." She explained the administration's reasoning:

It was impossible to do well kill ops with that much oil on surface -- had there not been something done to mitigate the impact of the flow of the oil, there would have been no well intervention ... There would be no cap, no drilling of the relief wells.
Too much oil was collecting on the surface above the wellhead, ruining any would-be attempt to kill the gushing well. But, as McNutt is keen to note, "Problem was, there was no science when you apply [chemical dispersants] in the deep sea -- we didn't know the impacts on sea life."

But the administration's response team made a snap judgment that deploying the dispersants -- without fully knowing the consequences on the underwater ecosystems -- was worth the risks so they could continue operations to halt the flow of oil. "It's still something that's a TBD," she says.

McNutt is the first to note that it may be years before we know the full impact of that decision. But, she hastens to add, we would do well to consider "what the impacts would have been without dispersants."

It was useful to hear McNutt discuss the process so candidly -- from inside the walls of the blogosphere, and even on the ground at the spill site, it could seem at times like the administration was acting in its best PR interests first and foremost (not that that didn't factor into the decision-making process). There was indeed a plausible, scientifically backed rationale for deploying untested dispersants -- though that doesn't make it any less thorny of an ethical or ecological issue.

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