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BP dragging its heels on doling out oil spill research money, scientists say

'It's like a murder scene; you have to pick up the evidence now.'

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

NEW ORLEANS -- Scientists say it is taking far too long to dole out millions of dollars in BP funds for badly needed Gulf oil spill research -- and it could be too late to assess the crude's impact on pelicans, shrimp and other species by the time studies begin.

The spring nesting and spawning season is a crucial time to get out and sample the reproduction rates, behaviour and abundance of species, all factors that could be altered by last year's massive spill, they say.

Yet no money has been made available for this year, and it could take months to determine which projects will be funded.

"It's like a murder scene,'' said Dana Wetzel, an ecotoxicologist at the Mote Marine Laboratory in Florida. "You have to pick up the evidence now.''

BP PLC had pledged $500 million -- $50 million a year over 10 years -- to help scientists study the spill's impact and forge a better understanding of how to deal with future spills. The first $50 million was handed out in May 2010 to four Gulf-based research institutes and to the National Institutes of Health.

Rita Colwell, a University of Maryland scientist who chairs the board overseeing the money, said the protocol for distributing the remaining $450 million would be announced Monday at the National Press Club Washington. After that, scientists will be allowed to submit proposals, but it could take months for research to be chosen.

Michael Carron, a Mississippi marine scientist selected to head the BP-funded post-spill research project, the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative, doubted money would be available before June. He admitted that not being able to study the spring spawning of shrimp, crabs and other animals would be a problem.

"This will be the first good glimpse of what happened to larvae, the first class'' of species born during and after the spill, he said.

With the BP funds so slow to get out the door, scientists are trying to get funding from federal grants and other sources. And it's still possible the BP money will be handed out on an expedited basis, Carron said.

From the outset, the $500 million has been fraught with problems and questions over how the money would be distributed and how much scientists would be influenced by BP. The result has been paralysis.

It took until last month for BP and the Gulf of Mexico Alliance, a non-profit headed by Gulf Coast governors, to finally agree on how to spend the rest of the $450 million. Under the agreement, BP pledged that research would be independent of the oil giant and the Gulf alliance and that scientists could publish their results without BP approval.

Still, BP will exert some control. For example, the funds will be overseen by a BP-hired contractor, and the oil giant has appointed half of the members on a 20-member board that will decide what research to do.

BP declined to comment and referred questions to the Gulf research initiative.

Larry McKinney, the director of the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, said the science board overseeing the money was solid and unlikely to be heavily influenced by BP.

Scientists who take the BP money will have to credit the oil giant for funding the research, and BP may be able to obtain patents for inventions derived from the research. McKinney said those requirements were standard.

The delay in BP funds has rankled scientists. There was a dearth of scientific investigation to understand the effects of the massive 1979 Ixtoc spill in the Gulf's Bay of Campeche, scientists said, and there are fears the same could happen in the wake of BP's spill.

"The science was abysmal to start with,'' George Crozier, the head of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab in Alabama, said about the effect of oil spills in the Gulf. "But, golly, the questions have become bigger and more important.''

And scientists don't have many other places to turn for research dollars.

While a lot of sampling and data collection is being done by BP and the federal government in the natural resource damage assessment, the legal battle over damage to the ecosystem also known as NRDA, scientists say that work is hardly cutting-edge and may not pick up the subtlest of changes in reproduction, DNA and other important factors.

"NRDA is not designed to advance science, it is designed to establish the damage done,'' Crozier said. "It is a legal-driven process.''

NRDA also focuses on the commercially important and top species -- not the worms, shorebirds, jellyfish, bait fish and tiny crustaceans that make up the bottom of the food web.

"There are areas of research we don't have a handle on,'' Wetzel said. "We're in the waiting room. We still don't know what's happened and we're waiting for someone to step up and say this is important to find out.''

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