BP Cash Creates Oil-Spill Archive Larger Than All U.S. Libraries

pelican tries to clean its wings while standing in the water on an island littered with protective orange and white booms May 27, 2010 near Grand Isle, Louisiana.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

Oil wasn’t the only thing that gushed after a well operated by BP Plc exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. There was also a fountain of research.

In the five years since the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig disaster, a scientific renaissance has blossomed in the Gulf, with thousands of researchers studying everything from crude-tolerant jellyfish to the thermodynamics of oil dispersion to alligator stem cells.

Now, from a gleaming building overlooking the turquoise Corpus Christi Bay, a team of scientists and marine biologists is using part of a $500 million grant from BP to create a single database to house the troves of information stemming from the lawsuits, damage assessments and research endeavors to make sense of the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history.

“We’re looking at as much as three petabytes of data,” said Larry McKinney, executive director of the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University- Corpus Christi, which is housing the data. “If you took all the books in all the libraries in all the universities in the United States, that’s one petabyte.”

The publicly available database, called the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative Information and Data Cooperative, is among the few positive developments to come from one the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history. The spill sullied hundreds of miles of coastline, killed thousands of marine animals and birds, and polluted the deepest depths of the ocean floor.

Not Valdez

The plan is intended to prevent what’s been the norm with previous oil spills: Researchers and funding flood a region in the immediate aftermath only to gradually fade away, leaving little knowledge for posterity.

Some research that came from the Alaskan Exxon Valdez spill in 1989, for example, is scattered across the globe, with studies and data sets stuffed away in boxes and stored in shelves of personal libraries.

“I have some of it here,” said James Gibeaut, director of the Gulf database project, who also worked on the Alaskan spill, from his office in Corpus Christi. “This time there is a very serious effort to capture all the information and make it available.”

For 87 days in 2010, millions of barrels of oil flowed freely into the Gulf after the explosion and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig. It led to the largest environmental cleanup effort in U.S. history, with billions of dollars in fines being paid out.

Legal Settlements

In 2013, a court approved a $1 billion settlement between the U.S. government and Transocean Ltd., the owner and operator of the rig, for civil penalties tied to pollution claims. In July, BP reached a tentative settlement with the government and five Gulf states for $18.7 billion in claims related to violations of the Clean Water Act.

Already, those states are planning how to spend the money, some of which they’ve already started receiving. In Texas, some of the first projects are getting ready to be announced. They range from traditional conservation efforts, such as ecosystem restoration, to seafood marketing programs and economic development projects in the inner city, said Toby Baker, who oversees aspects of the Gulf restoration for the state.

One project will seal old wells on the coast that are no longer producing oil, Baker said. Another will focus on improving bayous in Houston to improve water quality and boost recreational opportunities in poor neighborhoods.

In 2011, BP agreed to give $500 million over 10 years to create the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative, a consortium assigned to study oil spills and how to prevent and mitigate their effects, according to the research agreement. The deal stipulated the creation of a database to store information collected and make it available to the public.

“We now have a pretty full picture of this spill, which becomes a blueprint, if you will, for responding to future spills,” said Rita Colwell, former director of the National Science Foundation and research board chairman of the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative research board. “There is no other comprehensive set of data publicly available with as broad a span with respect to a single environmental event.”

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