Transcript: NOAA Administrator’s Keynote Address on NOAA Science and the Gulf Oil Spill

October 4, 2010

On Sept. 30, NOAA Administrator Dr. Jane Lubchenco delivered the following remarks at the American Bar Association’s Section of Environment, Energy, and Resources (SEER) Law Summit in New Orleans.
I am honored to be SEER’s keynote speaker today. As a public official who has pledged to uphold the rule of law, it’s a pleasure to be with experts on those laws.

Robert Kennedy once said, “Tragedy is a tool for the living to gain wisdom, not a guide by which to live.”

The tragedy of which Kennedy spoke was the Vietnam War. A different tragedy brings me here today. And with it will come the lessons from which wisdom will be born.

The tragedy that brings me here today is the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which started with an explosion of an offshore oil rig on April 20, claiming the lives of 11 people.

The events of April 20 triggered an environmental catastrophe of historic proportions, a catastrophe that propelled the nation into unknown territory.

Unknown because of the technological challenges of stopping the release of oil from a depth of more than a mile below the surface. 

Unknown because of the behavior of the oil released at such depths, with a significant fraction remaining deep in the Gulf.

Unknown because of the consequences of applying so much chemical dispersants and using it below the surface for the first time.

Unknown because of the mind-boggling amount of oil, nearly 5 million barrels that flowed for 3 months; and,

Unknown in the impacts on the Gulf ecosystem and the people who live there, fish there, and swim there.

Let me be clear. Despite these unknowns, the entire Federal family, including NOAA, is deeply committed to understanding the impact of this spill on the health of the Gulf and the millions of people who depend on it for their lives and livelihood and we are committed to full restoration of the Gulf and its people.

The President made it clear that he wanted the restoration plans to come from the Gulf to Washington, not the other way around. The framework unveiled Tuesday by Navy Secretary Mabus, a son of the Gulf and a former governor of Mississippi, reinforces the President’s commitment by creating a path forward for the region’s long-term economic, environmental and health recovery.

The President will soon issue an executive order, establishing a task force to coordinate restoration efforts. This integrated endeavor will focus squarely on restoration of ecosystem, economic, and health benefits.

Let me now transition to a more specific focus on my agency, NOAA, and our role in response and restoration.

NOAA is a science-based agency created by Executive Order under the Nixon administration. Our mission is to understand and anticipate changes in the Earth’s environment, and conserve and manage coastal and marine resources to meet our Nation’s economic, social, and environmental needs.

NOAA is, by law, also the Nation’s lead science agency for oil spills.

Our job for oil spills is to use the best science and create the tools needed for responders to make on-the-ground decisions in real-time during the crisis, and make smart decisions later, for example for restoration

NOAA’s role in Deepwater Horizon is five-fold: to conduct and share science, keep seafood safe, protect wildlife and habitat, assess damage, and restore the natural resources injured as a result of the spill.

For each of these five tasks that NOAA does, there is a component of law, a component of science, and a component of communication.

The nation's ability to prevent and respond to oil spills was significantly enhanced by passage of The Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which came on the heels of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill. This legislation put into place a process for restoring natural resources that are injured, and the associated ecosystem services that are lost as a result of oil spills.

The law intersects each of NOAA’s five responsibilities during an oil spill.

Because I’m a scientist, not a lawyer, I will focus on the science that enabled good response and recovery. And if you remember nothing else about what I say here, remember this: good science should underpin all that we do.

Good science – from the wisdom gleaned from the Exxon Valdez and other spills, to new information obtained during this response and continuing well beyond it – good science will shape the continuum from response and recovery to restoration.

The science that has been conducted has been solid, but even better understanding enables better response and restoration. A hard look at the track record will lead to wisdom and improve response and restoration.

From the early hours after the spill began, science began guiding the decisions.

At 11p.m. on April 20, a massive explosion erupted on the Deepwater Horizon rig. An estimated 700,000 gallons of diesel fueled the explosion and fire.

By 2a.m., the newly constituted Unified Command in Robert, Louisiana, had at its fingertips a trajectory forecast showing where the oil would be headed should it appear. This trajectory forecast was produced by NOAA.

Less than 20 hours later, the first spot weather forecast was issued by NOAA’s National Weather Service Forecast Office in Slidell, Louisiana at the request of the Unified Command.  These special forecasts consider time, topography, and weather, providing more detailed, timely, and specific information than regular zone forecasts.

These two NOAA science tools – oil trajectory forecasts and specialized weather forecasts – were critical elements of the good science that enabled informed response throughout the effort.
How were these tools so helpful?

They told responders where to deploy boom, where to skim and burn, and they told us which fisheries might have to be closed.

They gave us the vital information needed to mount a smart, tactical response.

Day after day, from the early hours after the explosion until 4 months later when the sheen of oil had not been visible on the surface for 3 weeks, these tools provided information that told us where the oil was headed 24, 48, and 72 hours in advance.

Scientists in NOAA’s war room in Seattle ran oceanographic and atmospheric models day after day, using the latest satellite, plane, and ship observations to initialize models and predict patterns of movement. Day after day, National Weather Service meteorologists produced spot weather forecasts; with over 4,000 having been produced from the Slidell office alone.

When responders had to make decisions about where to lay the boom, the information was at hand to inform their decisions: weather forecasts, trajectory maps, wind, tide and current data.
Science was transformed into a tool that people could use for real-time decision making.
Science also provided guidance for NOAA’s second concern: seafood safety.

Late on a Friday night, 10 days into the spill, I met with over 100 fishermen in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana. [Near] one of the largest ports in the U.S., Plaquemines Parish is made up of nearly twice as much water as land. The meeting room was filled mostly with charter boat operators, angry about the situation, hungry for information, and anxious about their future. They stressed the need to keep oil out of the wetlands that nurture the larvae and juvenile fish they depend on for their livelihoods. Their love for this place was compelling; their fear of its loss palpable.

I tell this story because I want you to understand that NOAA’s mission in the Gulf is not just about data and numbers, but about people. And restoring the Gulf means restoring the entire Gulf ecosystem, including its people’s lives and livelihoods.

To protect people, NOAA closed fisheries as the first line of defense to prevent contaminated seafood from entering the marketplace. The fishermen in Plaquemines Parish supported our closing oiled waters, but they also wanted life lines - safe places to fish. And so scientific information – the location of oil and forecasts showing us where the oil likely was going – guided NOAA’s decisions on where we would close fisheries and where areas could stay open safely.

At the height of closures, 37% or 88,522 square miles of federal Gulf waters was closed to fishing. Today, 60% of the previously closed areas have been re-opened under the protocol and sampling regime agreed to by NOAA, the FDA, and the Gulf states. Today 13% of the Federal waters in the Gulf are still closed to fishing. [As of Oct. 1, 11% of Federal waters are closed.]

Like closures, fishery re-openings depend on good science.

NOAA, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Gulf states agreed to a science-based protocol for re-opening a closed area. Three criteria must be satisfied for re-opening: (1) The area must be free of sheen for 30 days, (2) the area must not be likely to become contaminated in the future, and (3) seafood from the area must pass multiple, rigorous laboratory tests to ensure it is free from oil or dispersant contaminants. If all criteria are met, an area will be reopened. In addition, NOAA and the FDA are conducting dockside and market-based sampling as extra measures of safety.

I have confidence in our protocols and have enjoyed Gulf seafood each trip I’ve made to the region.

The third of NOAA’s five oil spill responsibilities is protecting wildlife and habitat. NOAA is responsible for sea turtles, dolphins, whales and other marine protected species.

Almost immediately after the explosion, we began collecting baseline data. We conducted overflights almost daily to monitor marine mammals, turtles, specific fisheries, wetlands and marshes. NOAA research ships initiated ongoing investigations of the impact of the oil on marine mammals and fisheries.

NOAA experts are part of the Federal team documenting impacts as well as rescuing and rehabilitating sea turtles. Five of seven species of sea turtles live in the Gulf. All are threatened or endangered. Any additional mortality can be a serious threat to any of the species.

To date, 592 turtles have died, primarily Kemp’s Ridley turtles. NOAA is conducting autopsies to understand the cause of death. And we realize that hidden casualties are likely. 

In parallel, we have been engaged in two aggressive efforts to save other turtles. 

NOAA led a focused effort to take boats out to oiled areas to find and rescue turtles, and rehabilitate them if needed. To date, 126 have been cleaned and released at sea, and 330 have been brought back to land for rehabilitation. In August, Admiral Allen and I had the great pleasure of releasing the first 23 of these rehabilitated and healthy turtles. What a joy it was to watch them zoom off into the Gulf, stop to snatch a gulp of air, then disappear beneath the waves. To date, 158 rehabilitated turtles have been released back to their proper habitat.

Our second major turtle effort focused on eggs and hatchlings. The spill took place just as many loggerhead turtles were ready to lay their eggs on Gulf beaches. To keep vulnerable nests out of harm’s way, NOAA joined the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to transplant some nests to oil-free locations. We won’t know the success of these efforts for years, but we are hopeful.

Scientific knowledge of turtle physiology, ecology, and behavior guided all of the efforts, helping us know where to look for animals affected by the spill, and assess vulnerabilities of and impacts on these species.

Science is also integral to assessing damage, the fourth of NOAA’s oil spill responsibilities.
NOAA is one of three Federal trustees for the Natural Resource Damage Assessment (or NRDA) process, helping to identify and quantify short- and long-term impacts to the Gulf of Mexico’s ecosystems.

The goal of NRDA is to compensate the Public for injuries to natural resources and the loss of the ecological services they provide. The Trustees consider restoration very early in the process. Injuries are balanced against, and directly scaled to restoration – not monetized.

NRDA combines science, economics and law. It is a restoration-focused, legal process that must be conducted strategically and jointly.

NRDA is a cooperative process. Trustees are responsible for acting on behalf of the public.  Trustees work together to accomplish NRDA goals.

The Secretary of Commerce, acting through NOAA, is a trustee for the following natural resources and their supporting ecosystems and resulting services: marine fishery resources; anadromous fishes; endangered species and marine mammals; and the resources of National Marine Sanctuaries and National Estuarine Research Reserves.

Within the first week of the spill, NOAA convened co-trustees to organize collaborative teams to coordinate data collection activities in the Gulf of Mexico and across the five Gulf states.
Three days into the spill, NOAA scientists began pre-assessment activities, identifying fish, shellfish, bottom-dwelling biota, birds, marine mammals, turtles and other potentially affected species. In addition, sensitive habitats such as wetlands, submerged aquatic vegetation, beaches, mudflats, and deep and shallow corals were categorized for further study.

On any given day, more than 40 teams from across NOAA are in the field collecting data on these resources and the impact of the spill.

The NRDA data collection provides the scientific foundation for the tools and targets to restore the health of the Gulf.

What does loss look like to residents in the Gulf?  The answers are as varied as the cultures and individuals of the Gulf.  On my earliest trips to the Gulf, I met:

Clearly, there is no separation between the well-being of Gulf residents and the health of the Gulf.

Nearly 5 million barrels and 3 months after the explosion, the oil stopped flowing. Two months later, the Macondo well was declared dead, dead, dead. But, although oil stopped flowing, we did not stop working.

Our search for any remaining oil or dispersants continues, as does our quest to full understand the impact and restore the Gulf. Let me now say a little more about the subsurface monitoring.

Though much of the oil beneath the surface was dispersed into droplets less than a diameter of the human hair, and although this dispersed oil was measured in concentrations of parts per million to parts per billion, dilute and dispersed do not mean benign.

We continue to have grave concerns about the impact that this subsurface oil may have had on vulnerable species and young stages of diverse marine life.

To date, we have extensively tested offshore and near shore waters.

And, we are now engaged in a massive, comprehensive, collaborative effort to monitor the fate of oil and dispersants sub-surface, adding to the array of samples already in hand. Our goal is to understand the fate and effects of the oil and dispersants under the surface and at the bottom of the sea. From what this scientific information tells us, appropriate evaluation and response measures can be devised.

In looking to assess the impacts of this spill, we cannot look only at each species in isolation.  We cannot look only now. We must ask the hard questions of how this spill impacts this and future generations of species within the ecosystem, and how those changes in turn affect the ecosystem service provided to the people of the Gulf. This cannot be accomplished in an instant. It will take time.

And because full recovery can take a very long time, we cannot wait for assessment to be completed before restoration must begin. 

Scientific knowledge has guided what has been called the largest response to an environmental catastrophe in the history of the United States.

From the time this oil spill began, I maintained that the most important thing we could do, above all else, was to bring the best science and services to inform the response and recovery efforts.   We did so in each of our 5 areas of responsibility: science, seafood safety, wildlife and habitat, damage assessment, and restoration.

And this work continues, as we look for oil remaining below the surface, as we examine the health of the Gulf ecosystem, as we work to understand the long-term impacts and their implications.

For in that enlightened understanding of the ecosystem, people, and life of the Gulf, we will be better able to develop the best management tools for restoration of this valuable, integrated ecosystem.

In short, we will continue to be vigilant in pursuing good science. And we will share that knowledge broadly. Our goal is simple: enable people to eat, fish, and swim safely in the Gulf.  Eat, fish, and swim with joy.

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