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White House stalls oil-slick research

June 21, 2010 By Amanda AM Mascarelli This article courtesy of Nature News.

Half-billion-dollar BP fund put on hold.

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Plans to distribute monies from BP's ten-year Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GRI) have been thrown into turmoil by a last-minute edict from the White House.

On 15 June, BP announced that it would distribute US$25 million in fast-track funding across three research institutions in its first step towards fulfilling a $500-million pledge for high-priority studies to assess environmental damage from the oil spill.

BP had planned to put out a request for proposals for the remaining $475 million within days of the announcement and said that large-scale research centres would be established as part of its mission.

The bureaucratic hurdles are formidable.

But on 16 June, the White House issued a vaguely worded statement that could slow the effort. The press release said that BP would consult with "governors, and state and local environmental and health authorities" to design its long-term monitoring programme within the research initiative.

This has left the future of the initiative uncertain, even to members of an independent advisory panel of six scientists that the company had set up to evaluate research proposals and decide how the remaining funds would be divided up. The panel includes Rita Colwell, a former director of the US National Science Foundation, and the agency's former assistant director for geosciences Margaret Leinen. On the details of what the programme will entail, Leinen says, "I really am not in a position to talk about it — and I don't think any of us are".

Researchers say that the government mandate could stall the process considerably. "It makes sense to coordinate the Gulf of Mexico research initiative with efforts that are already under way," says Jeffrey Short, an environmental chemist with Oceana, a marine conservation organization based in Washington DC. "But it will be difficult to achieve that coordination in a timely manner. The bureaucratic hurdles are formidable."

BP spokeswoman Elizabeth Ashford says that the company will follow through with its initial $25-million commitment. This will be used to establish the interactions between oil, dispersants and the environment, and the ecological conditions on the Gulf Coast before the accident. "The idea was always that this would be independent from BP," says Ashford. "All of that intention is still there. But we do need and intend to be responsive to the White House."

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