The Gulf of Mexico region is home to diverse and vibrant communities, productive ecosystems, and thriving industries. It constitutes an invaluable part of the Nation’s population, economy, and natural resources. The 2010 Macondo Well Deepwater Horizon (DWH) oil spill placed a spotlight on the importance of this region and on the deep connections between Gulf residents and their surrounding ecosystems.
The DWH oil spill1 began with an explosion and fire that led to the deaths of 11 oil rig workers and the injury of 17 others. For 87 days after the DWH rig sank, oil flowed from a blowout of the Macondo well, causing the largest offshore oil spill on record in U.S. waters. In total, approximately 172 million gallons of oil spilled (McNutt et al., 2012), causing significant harm to the Gulf of Mexico environment and its people and testing the resilience of communities still struggling to recover from the devastating effects of a series of hurricanes in 2005 and 2008.
The recovery of the Gulf region from the disaster has been arduous and is ongoing. But the recovery and restoration process also provides an opportunity to help communities strengthen their capacity to meet future challenges.
As part of agreements settling the criminal charges against BP Exploration & Production Inc. (BP) and Transocean Deepwater Inc. (Transocean), the companies responsible for the DWH oil spill, the U.S. Department of Justice asked the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to establish a new program focused on oil system safety, human health, and environmental resources in the Gulf of Mexico and the U.S. outer continental shelf. In aggregate, the NAS will receive $500 million between 2013 and 2018 for the Gulf Research Program, which will be placed in an endowment and expended within 30 years (see Box). The companies are prohibited from having any role in the Program.
The agreements provide broad guidance on how the funds are to be used. The Program is expected to consist of studies, projects, and other activities using three approaches—research and development, education and training, and environmental monitoring. The Program will engage the nation’s scientific, engineering, and health communities with the overarching objectives of “enhancing the safety of offshore oil drilling and hydrocarbon production” and protecting “human health and environmental resources in the Gulf of Mexico and United States outer continental shelf.” The program’s work is to be carried out in the public interest, supporting activities that otherwise might not be pursued.
1References to the “DWH oil spill” throughout this document include the related events of the Macondo well blowout, the destruction and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, and the subsequent oil spill.
As part of the agreements settling criminal charges against the two companies held responsible for the DWH oil spill (BP Exploration & Production Inc. and Transocean Deepwater Inc.), the Department of Justice asked the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to establish a $500-million, 30-year program with the objectives of enhancing oil system safety and improving the protection of human health and environmental resources. Under the agreements, BP will pay $350 million by 2018 and Transocean will pay $150 million by 2017 to the NAS to be managed in a fixed-term endowment.
|BP payments||Transocean payments|
|2013||$5 million||$2 million|
|2014||$15 million||$7 million|
|2015||$45 million||$21 million|
|2016||$80 million||$60 million|
|2017||$90 million||$60 million|
The agreements require that at least once per year the Program will interact with the environmental protection departments and other natural resource managers in the Gulf States (Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas) and at the federal level with the Interagency Coordinating Committee on Oil Pollution Research (ICCOPR)2 and its participating members, particularly the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) and Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM). Beyond this broad guidance, the Program is to be independently planned and implemented by the NAS.
2ICCOPR comprises 15 members representing federal independent agencies, departments, and department components: Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), Department of Energy, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Maritime Administration, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, National Institute of Standards and Technology, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Coast Guard (USCG), U.S. Fire Administration, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and U.S. Navy. USCG chairs the ICCOPR; NOAA, BSEE, and EPA rotate assignments as vice chair every 2 years.
The NAS was chosen to lead a new program3 because of its long history as an independent, objective adviser to the Nation in areas of science, engineering, technology, and health. As a private, nonprofit organization with a record of 150 years of public service, the NAS brings an independent view and objective leadership to the design, implementation, and oversight of the Program.
Creating a new program of this scale and complexity requires careful planning. To begin, the NAS established an expert group of volunteers from diverse backgrounds to guide the planning process and develop an initial, strategic foundation for the Program. The Advisory Group began its work in summer 2013 to articulate the initial program design and focus (see Appendixes A and B). The group first sought answers to several basic questions: What are the Program’s assigned responsibilities? What are other funding bodies doing that potentially interact or overlap? What are some of the perceived needs that align with the Program’s responsibilities and the strengths of the Academies? What initial activities should be undertaken?
Significant effort was made to understand the context in which the Program will operate. The Advisory Group and Program staff explored the meaning of the tasks specified in the legal agreements, built relationships with other organizations, and identified perceived needs that match the Program’s mandate. To understand the existing landscape, the Advisory Group convened a series of meetings in the Gulf States along with virtual meetings to learn from and interact with a wide range of stakeholders. Through these meetings, participation in conferences, and other discussions (see Appendix C), the Advisory Group learned from many people familiar with past and
THE NATIONAL ACADEMY OF SCIENCES
To meet the government’s need for an independent adviser on scientific matters, President Lincoln signed a congressional charter in 1863 forming the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to “investigate, examine, experiment, and report upon any subject of science.” As science came to play an ever-increasing role in national priorities and public life, the NAS, a private, nonprofit organization, expanded to include the National Research Council (NRC) in 1916, the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) in 1964, and the Institute of Medicine (IOM) in 1970.
These organizations, together known as the National Academies, have a mission to increase public understanding of science, foster the wise use of science in decision making and public policy, and promote the acquisition and dissemination of knowledge in matters involving science, engineering, technology, and health. The institution is widely respected for its independence and has unique capabilities to bring the best science to bear on issues of national importance. In any given year, nearly 7,000 experts volunteer their time and expertise to work on Academies projects, including a number with direct relevance to the Gulf Research Program (e.g., Macondo Well Deepwater Horizon Blowout: Lessons for Improving Offshore Drilling [NAE and NRC, 2011] and Assessing the Effects of the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill on Human Health [IOM, 2010]).
Activities at the National Academies include consensus studies; convening activities such as workshops, forums, roundtables, and symposia; management of science program reviews, fellowships, and other educational activities; and publication of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. The NAS, NAE, IOM, and NRC do not receive direct appropriations from the federal government, although specific activities often are funded by federal agencies. Other sources of funds include foundations, state governments, and the private sector.
3Two other nonprofit organizations, the North American Wetlands Conservation Fund (NAWCF) and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF), also received funds arising out of the criminal settlements. NAWCF is receiving $100 million to be used for wetlands conservation projects. NFWF is receiving $2.544 billion to be used for natural resources restoration in the Gulf of Mexico.
future challenges in the Gulf region, interacted with other organizations that have been funding programs related to the DWH oil spill, and began discussions with some of the other entities planning to conduct or fund restoration-related work in the Gulf (see Appendix D).
Through these discussions, it became clear that a substantial number of organizations and people have been doing a diverse array of related work in the Gulf region, many with years of experience. The Program wants to benefit from the experiences of others, build on existing work, and seek partnership opportunities, and is committed to continuing dialog with the many other stakeholders interested in restoring and enhancing the resilience of the Gulf region ecosystems and communities.
The Gulf of Mexico
Outreach activities helped the Advisory Group deepen its understanding of the strengths and challenges in the region and how the new Program might contribute. One significant change over time has been coastal population growth: the region’s coastal counties are now home to 40 million residents and are home to 7 of the 10 busiest ports in the United States. The region is economically and culturally vibrant, but there are significant challenges due to competing uses of valuable environmental resources.
For example, the Mississippi River watershed delivers millions of metric tons of sediments from the Midwest that historically helped build and sustain coastal wetlands that, in turn, supported fisheries and wildlife. However, these sediments also can impede shipping, an industry that moves many billions of dollars’ worth of commodities in and out of the country. Construction of levees, closures of tributaries, and dredging to control floods have supported the development of shipping channels and are also important to the production and transportation of oil and gas. However, these actions have also
contributed to the loss of wetlands and their associated services. Other environmental stressors, such as sea-level rise and other effects of climate change, will only exacerbate the difficulty of managing competing interests. These challenges will test the substantial resilience of the region’s communities and natural ecosystems.
Few regions have such a remarkable blend of cultures, ethnicities, and histories as that found in the five U.S. states that border the Gulf of Mexico. Together, they exhibit a rich heritage—one that reflects elements of African American, Cajun, Creole, Croatian, Latino, Native American, and Vietnamese cultures, among others. This diversity continues to enrich the region culturally and economically. For example, many of these communities have multigenerational ties to industries that rely heavily on natural resources, including nature tourism, the shellfish and finfish industries, and the oil and gas industry (LSU AgCenter, 2012).
The region’s abundant natural resources continue to drive economies that attract new residents and visitors. Covering 600,000 square miles, the Gulf of Mexico contains commercial and recreational fisheries that annually harvest more than 1 billion pounds of finfish and shellfish valued in excess of $600 million. Recreational fishing alone is a $2 billion per year industry. Tourism is a $20 billion per year industry that employs more than 600,000 people. The coastline of the five Gulf States is more than 3,500 miles long and borders 5 million acres of wetlands, representing more than 40 percent of the coastal wetlands in the contiguous 48 states. These wetlands provide essential habitat for the region’s fisheries and for 75 percent of the Nation’s migrating birds. The region also supports a trillion-dollar gas and oil industry. The Gulf States produce nearly half the Nation’s natural gas and 23 percent of the Nation’s oil. The offshore oil sector employs 55,000 workers.
THE CLIMATE CHANGE CONTEXT
Many lines of evidence indicate that humans are changing Earth’s climate. The atmosphere and oceans have warmed, accompanied by sea-level rise, a strong decline in Arctic sea ice, and other climate-related changes. Numerous reports coming from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 2013, 2014a,b,c), the Third National Climate Assessment (Ingram et al., 2013), and the NAS (NRC, 2010, 2011; National Academy of Sciences and Royal Society, 2014) have drawn increasingly confident conclusions regarding the human influence on the changing global climate, current and anticipated impacts, and possible ways to limit and adapt to change.
During the 30-year duration of the Program, the consequences of changing climate will become more manifest along the Gulf Coast. Adaptation will be essential to social resilience. The fossil fuel–based economy of the Gulf region will change in ways that are difficult to foresee as the Nation seeks ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The U.S. Gulf Coast is particularly vulnerable to sea-level rise. Globally averaged sea level, which had been relatively stable over 2,000 years, rose 1.8 mm/year during the 20th century, has been rising 3.2 mm/year over the past 20 years, and with high certainty is projected to rise at greater rates during the 21st century. To compound the challenge resulting from sea-level rise, parts of the Louisiana and Texas coast are subsiding faster than the ocean is presently rising. As a result, sea level is already rising over 9 mm/year relative to the shore in the outer Mississippi River delta and nearly 7 mm/year around Galveston Bay (http://tidesandcurrents.noaa.gov/sltrends).
This map shows where increases in sea level could affect the southern and Gulf coasts of the United States. The colors indicate areas along the coast that are elevations of 1 meter or less (red) or 6 meters or less (yellow) and have connectivity to the sea. Credit: Weiss and Overpeck, University of Arizona. SOURCE: Weiss et al. (2011).
Along the Gulf Coast, accelerated sea-level rise will have significant effects on barrier shorelines; deltaic and other coastal wetlands; urban as well as less densely populated areas; levees and floodwalls that protect people and property, ports, oil and gas infrastructure; and large areas of coastal landscape that today lie less than 1 meter above mean sea level.
Another key vulnerability is severe weather. The Gulf Coast is the part of the United States that experiences the greatest frequency of hurricane landfalls, as well as the most intense hurricanes. The devastation caused by Katrina and other recent hurricanes highlighted the vulnerability to hurricanes of coastal environments, human populations, infrastructure, offshore energy production, and the Nation’s energy supply. The dynamics of tropical cyclones are expected to be affected by global climate change; current scientific understanding indicates that although Atlantic hurricanes might not become more frequent, they are likely to become more powerful.
Other climate change impacts, including warming of the atmosphere and Gulf waters, increasing acidity of Gulf waters, and changes in precipitation, river flows, and ocean currents, also will affect the Gulf Coast. Climate models indicate an increased frequency of extremely warm days, more extreme rainfall events, and, at least along the central and western Gulf Coast, drier summer conditions. Increased precipitation in the upper Mississippi River Basin might generate greater discharges of the Mississippi and Atchafalaya Rivers, which will influence circulation, productivity, and the occurrence and extent of hypoxia (creating what is known as the Dead Zone) in the northern Gulf.
Despite these strengths and resources, the Gulf region faces a suite of challenges that vary from global to local in scale and impact. As identified in one assessment (Mabus, 2010) of the Gulf region’s environment, economy, and health, these challenges include wetland loss, which in Louisiana alone averages 25 to 35 square miles per year; erosion of coastal barrier islands and shorelines, which undermines capacity for storm protection in a region that has experienced more than 120 hurricanes over the past century; loss and degradation of coastal estuarine habitats, which threaten the critical nursery habitat for the Gulf’s fishery resources; overfishing of major commercially and recreationally important fish stocks; and hypoxia caused by excess nutrient pollution from the Mississippi River watershed.
Like the rest of the Nation, some of the greatest challenges to human health in the Gulf region are related to chronic illness, health disparities, and growing inequality. Environmental stressors related to climate change and the loss of ecosystem services are expected to create new health challenges for the region.
The combination of these challenges is specific to the Gulf region, but they are exacerbated by global phenomena such as coastal population increase and climate change. Over time, global responses to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are expected to have implications for the oil and gas industry, the predominant driver of the Gulf’s economy.
These challenges are not unlike those faced by other regions in the United States and across the globe. The funds stemming from the DWH oil spill provide a remarkable opportunity for scientists, policy makers, and communities to build on the region’s considerable strengths to prepare and meet future challenges.
Given its $500 million endowment and 30-year duration, the Program presents an extraordinary opportunity to tackle large, complex issues at a regional scale and from a long-term perspective. The settlement language provides broad guidance on how the Program should contribute by identifying three areas of responsibility: oil system safety, human health, and environmental resources. The agreements also identify three broad categories of activity: research and development, education and training, and environmental monitoring.
The agreement is also clear that while the work is to focus on the Gulf of Mexico, it is to be relevant to the Nation as a whole, considering insights learned from or useful to other U.S. outer continental shelf regions where oil and gas development is occurring or being considered. In these regions, human communities, ecosystems, and oil and gas exploration and development interact. The following section expands on the broad categories of activity provided in the settlement language and defines terms to be used by the Program.
Categories of Activity
The Program will emphasize work at the intersections of its three specified areas of responsibility—oil system safety, human health, and environmental resources. For the purposes of the Program, human health is defined as “the complete state of physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”4 The protection of environmental resources is defined as the protection and restoration of the environment and ecosystem services. Ecosystem services are the benefits that people obtain from ecosystems, including provisioning services such as the supply of food and water; regulating services such as flood and disease control; cultural services such as spiritual, recreational, and cultural benefits; and supporting services, such as nutrient cycling, that maintain the conditions for life on Earth.
The Gulf Research Program will focus on issues at the intersections of its three specified areas of responsibility.
4Preamble to the Constitution of the World Health Organization as adopted by the International Health Conference, New York, 19-22 June 1946; signed on 22 July 1946 by the representatives of 61 States (Official Records of the World Health Organization, no. 2, p. 100) and entered into force on 7 April 1948.
Research and Development
The Program will support research, technology development, information synthesis, and other science-based activities that improve oil system safety and enhance the protection of environmental resources and human health in the Gulf of Mexico and other regions that support oil and gas production on the U.S. outer continental shelf. Through research and development (R&D) activities, the Program will seek to increase understanding of the Gulf region as a dynamic system that provides key ecosystem services such as energy, seafood, and wetlands for storm protection. R&D will also be used to advance oil system safety, primarily through work on prevention and safety culture and to expand understanding of the factors that influence community resilience to disasters and future environmental change.
Some Program R&D funding will emphasize synthesis and assessment of information, which is critical to translating and packaging data in ways that can be readily incorporated into decision making by target audiences. The Program aims to fund innovative and collaborative research and related activities. The Program will seek a balance of short-, medium-, and long-term efforts, with an emphasis on cross-boundary approaches that catalyze work across disciplines, geographic borders, perspectives, and sectors. Ideally, the Program will seek a balance of risk and return, at times supporting lower-risk approaches and at times seeking innovation even if at greater risk.
Education and Training
The Program will foster capacity building and the engagement, education, and training of scientists, engineers, health professionals, and offshore oil and gas industry personnel. In its education and training (E&T) components, the Program will stress leadership development and cross-boundary thinking, and strive to engage a range of program participants that reflect the diversity of the communities where offshore oil exploration exists. The Program will support the development of tools, programs, and partnerships. It may also support the development of novel teaching and learning technologies.
The Program will avoid duplicating existing E&T programs and will seek to transfer successful models between the Gulf and other regions. The Program will support collaborative activities that span multiple disciplines and sectors. The Program will provide incentives for R&D activities that include student participation at the undergraduate and graduate levels as well as postdoctoral opportunities. These types of investments will grow and evolve over the course of the Program’s 30 years and will help build future generations of science, engineering, and health professionals, and a workforce with a regional and interdisciplinary perspective.
For the purposes of the Program, environmental monitoring is defined as “a continuing program of measurement, analysis, and synthesis to identify and quantify ecosystem conditions and trends to provide a technical basis for decision making” (GoMRI, 2014). Monitoring information can be used to increase basic understanding, identify emerging problems and long-term trends, inform restoration projects, prioritize use of resources, and provide information to guide policy and management. It is essential for increasing understanding of how an ecosystem and its components change over time. For rapidly changing regions such as the Gulf of Mexico, monitoring efforts can yield reference data that alert stakeholders to emerging environmental and health concerns or serve as base data for a future disaster.
ENVIRONMENTAL MONITORING IN THE GULF OF MEXICO: Developing an Integrated System
Environmental monitoring programs are conducted for a number of purposes and can vary significantly in the scale of their spatial and temporal boundaries. They can also vary significantly in scope, ranging from community-based monitoring on a local scale, to large-scale collaborative global monitoring programs. In a region as large and ecologically diverse as the Gulf of Mexico, and where numerous federal, state, and local jurisdictions have differing responsibilities, it is not surprising that the region is home to a large number of environmental monitoring programs with a diversity of goals and metrics.
This diversity, when viewed at the large regional or ecosystem level, has occasionally and unintentionally created duplication of efforts and reduced the potential for integrating and synthesizing the data from different programs; this limits the usefulness of the data. Consequently, there have been increasing calls for more coordination among the programs engaged in monitoring activities around the Gulf region.
Several regional organizations had proposed elements of a collective or network approach to environmental monitoring in the Gulf, including the Gulf of Mexico Alliance (GOMA) and the Gulf of Mexico Coastal Ocean Observing System (GCOOS). Interest in increased collaboration has accelerated since the DWH oil spill, which because of its size, highlighted
During the Program’s 30-year duration, coastal populations will continue to grow, with increased demands on coastal and marine ecosystem services. There is the possibility of future oil spills and the challenges of understanding the extent of risk (such as whether seafood is safe) and resulting damage (which requires a strong foundation of data and information before the event). The Program will operate in a context that includes other, significant environmental challenges, including climate change, sea-level rise, and coastal subsidence.
Environmental monitoring is a major, multifaceted challenge, and it is expensive. A broad partnership will need to coalesce to identify user needs, produce coordinated efforts, and identify cutting-edge technologies. The Program could serve as a catalyst in this process, seeking to leverage funds and contribute long-term and regional perspectives. It will participate in continuing community dialogs seeking the best approaches and partnerships to meet monitoring needs.
the need for a stronger and more holistic understanding of the Gulf ecosystem’s health and function. The DWH oil spill also triggered a considerable increase in funding to investigate and assess the impacts from the spill, and these efforts are generating volumes of new environmental data and information.
For example, in summer 2010 BP committed $500 million over a 10-year period to create the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI), a broad, independent research program that funds research across multiple research institutions primarily in the Gulf States. Although GoMRI’s mission is primarily to investigate the impacts of the DWH oil spill, it also shares with GCOOS, GOMA, the Program, and many other organizations the common goal of improving the long-term environmental health of the Gulf of Mexico. All of these organizations recognize the need for an integrated ecosystem observing system for the Gulf of Mexico.
A number of organizations and agencies have come together to discuss improving the coordination of environmental monitoring efforts in the Gulf of Mexico. In GoMRI’s 2014 Oil Spill Conference, a daylong session titled “Current and Future Ecosystem Monitoring Strategies in the Gulf of Mexico” was held. The session had three objectives: (1) to begin to synthesize current monitoring projects and assets in the Gulf, (2) to determine the community’s observing priorities in a variety of disciplines, and (3) to elicit participant recommendations for an optimized, integrated observing system. GCOOS, in particular, is committed to implementing these recommendations by integrating them with its current and planned activities.
Other community dialogs about coordination continue. For instance, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Coastal Data Development Center has worked with GOMA to organize two workshops that brought stakeholders from state and federal governments, nongovernmental organizations, industry, and academia to identify and develop priorities for observation and monitoring in the Gulf. One of the overarching needs identified at the workshops is to develop a mechanism that recovers data from past monitoring programs, stores data from current monitoring activities, and provides public-ready access to the data and related information. The workshops identified outcomes around three themes: (1) enhancing partnerships and collaboration among the agencies and entities involved in monitoring; (2) identifying existing data gaps, developing comprehensive data inventories for the region, and providing a mechanism for improved data management and infrastructure; and (3) expanding communication efforts with the public and funding agencies, both to help establish the value of the various products that come from environmental monitoring and to support science-based resource management decisions. Collectively, these community discussions are steps toward the realization of an integrated ecosystem observing system that both helps advance basic understanding of the Gulf of Mexico and fosters use of that information for decision making.