The Sea Grant Oil Spill Science Outreach Team hosted a free workshop for those interested in learning more about how oil spill response works, both from an operational and a scientific standpoint. Led by Sea Grant oil spill specialist Monica Wilson and held in conjunction with the 2017 Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill Science Conference, the February 6 session brought to the podium government, industry and academic leaders. Each shared his or her perspective on the decision-making process involved in the immediate and ongoing response to an oil spill, no matter how large or small.
The first panel of speakers included representatives of various government agencies involved in oil spill response. Dave Westerholm, director of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, and Paige Doelling, NOAA’s regional scientific support coordinator, explained the government’s response processes and how the latest scientific research is introduced within that framework.
As the first responders in any size oil spill, Commander Kelly Denning, head of response for the U.S. Coast Guard’s (USCG) Sector New Orleans, and Lt. Ryan Dickson, commanding officer of USCG Station Grand Isle, discussed operational procedures, including the mandate to “always do more good than harm” during a response. Both Doelling and Denning described how everything – from the type of oil spilled to its location and volume – goes into determining the best way to limit any potential damage. Dickson indicated that even in the most stressful decision-making situations, science always wins over emotion.
Tim Nedwed, a senior technical professional at ExxonMobil Upstream Research Company, opened the second panel by explaining that response plans in the oil and gas industry rely heavily on field studies to inform and prepare teams for every contingency. Lab studies are a good starting point, he said, but they simply cannot include every factor that could influence oil’s behavior in a natural setting.
Eugene Turner and Ed Overton, both of Louisiana State University, followed. Turner detailed recent Louisiana coastal wetland health studies, describing what researchers learned from Deepwater Horizon about how oil intrusion impacts marshes over time. Overton explained that knowing everything we possibly can about oil’s properties, movement, and weathering processes is paramount to deciding the best way to combat a spill. He emphasized that just because a response method has been used for years does not mean it is rendered obsolete by new methods. The best response plans include every means available, old and new, to remove oil from the marine environment.
After each panel spoke, they answered audience questions, with lively discussion ensuing. Participants broke out into smaller groups during the last hour of the workshop to discuss challenges associated with oil spill response in a smaller setting.
Groups talked about ways to improve communication between academic, government and industry scientists as potential solutions to these challenges. The discussions with attendees in the breakout sessions will help the oil spill specialists decide the agenda for future workshops. Part of a regional series, the team built this workshop upon the success of another that took place in Texas.
Wilson has two more oil spill science and response workshops planned—one in Florida and another along the Alabama-Mississippi coast.
More than 70 people attended the session in person and an additional 45 joined via webinar. Many of those in the room came to New Orleans for the larger oil spill conference sponsored by the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative, Sea Grant’s partner on this project. Others only attended this workshop.
The team hosts free workshops on various aspects of oil spill science as part of its overall outreach mission. To view presentations from past workshops or see what’s coming up, visit gulfseagrant.org/oilspilloutreach/presentations.