Research dollars flow from Gulf oil spill

NEW ORLEANS — Once a backwater in the world of oceanographic research, the Gulf of Mexico has suddenly become the site of a scientific gold rush, all because of the BP oil spill.

The environmental disaster represents a once-in-a-generation research opportunity that has oceanographers salivating. There's big money — $500 million from BP alone — up for grabs. And for scientists who usually toil in near-obscurity, there's the prospect of lots of media attention.

Researchers are suddenly in demand, with more than 100 hired guns on the job. BP has signed up nearly 50 scientists to help defend it from legal action. The federal government has its paid experts, and so do attorneys suing BP. Environmental activists have their own research vessels and scientists.

At least 165 proposed studies are registered through a federal clearinghouse. Some crucial supplies — such as boats — are hard to find.

"We've never had this many research vessels concentrated in the Gulf at any one time — never," said Larry McKinney, director of Gulf of Mexico studies at Texas A&M University in Corpus Christi. "It's been a flat-out crazy time."

To try to bring order to what's going on, scientists studying the spill from around the country will gather in Florida on Oct. 5 at the request of the White House science office to talk about coordination and priorities. Also in the next week or so, Gulf states are expected to complete an agreement on how to hand out the $500 million in BP-pledged research money over the next decade.

The Gulf of Mexico has gotten relatively little federal research support in the past. In the 20 years before the oil spill, the Great Lakes received more than $1 billion, while the Chesapeake Bay got just shy of half a billion. Spending for the same time period on the much-larger Gulf of Mexico: $85 million.