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Lesson Plan: Gulf Oil Spill

ESF faculty members likely to incorporate timely disaster into class work

By Jess Siart ES '12

In the aftermath of the 87-day long British Petroleum oil spill along the Gulf Coast, the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry will take heed of the lessons learned during the disaster by incorporating them into classes.

For the past four months, the world has watched the devastation in the Gulf of Mexico caused by the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig owned by BP. It is estimated that 4.9 billion barrels of crude oil gushed from the well before it was capped July 15. Now that the flow of oil has stopped, many are looking to learn from the mistakes that occurred before, during and after the spill.

At ESF, the spill could be integrated into several topics, said Mark Meisner, a professor of environmental studies. Potential topics include failed policies and regulation, questionable science, our addiction to oil and effects on marine life, Meisner said.

The spill could also be discussed from a communications standpoint, he said. In particular, classes could discuss the use of public relations to appear environmentally friendly, attempts by government and BP officials to restrict journalists' access and limit images of the disaster, and the issue of how President Barack Obama used - or didn't use - this case as a rhetorical tool to push for legislation on climate change.

"It is hard to imagine a course or topic that would be covered in 2010-11 that (will) not include references and examples from the Gulf oil spill," said Neil Ringler, dean of research for ESF, in an e-mail interview.

Because of ESF's systematic approach to environmental science, where aspects of the environment are looked at as part of the global system rather than as a singular entity, the spill will appear in several classes that focus on a broad range of topics.

"It is true that the spill will appear in some fashion in many of our courses, particularly fisheries science, marine science, but also basic biology and chemistry with regard to toxicology, and even ecological and ordinary macro and micro economics," Ringler said.

ESF hopes to use the lessons learned from the spill to better the global community through careful, scientifically calculated decisions and responses.

"Colleges and universities are striving to be far more connected to their communities and to the future well-being of the local, national and global economies," Ringler said. "The Gulf event focused us on these connections, and it provides an example of how important accurate, thorough environmental assessments can be."

Although it is common for the environmental science field to take a systematic approach, students at ESF are uniquely qualified to help because of the college's strong science background, said Kim Shulz, a professor of environmental and forest biology.

Because the spill occurred so recently there is little completed research. Once more research is available, the spill will take on a larger role in the classroom, Shulz said.

"It's early to make a whole class, but there could probably be a seminar about lessons we can learn from the spill," Shulz said.

Shulz said the most important lesson that can be learned from the spill is to avoid blind faith in technology.

"You really need to make sure safeguards are in place and technology is safe, or we're going to keep having big spills like this," she said.

Along with the lessons learned, the spill offers a real-life application of the practices of mixing science with policy and science with communications - lessons that taught at ESF.

"It's about training students on the importance of not just learning the science but learning the importance of outreach so the public understands what's happening," Shulz said. "It's important that students being trained in environmental science in the future do a better job of showing the long-term effects."

Charles Hall, a professor of environmental and forest biology, said some of his classes already deal extensively with Louisiana's ecosystems. The Gulf oil spill, while severe, will be incorporated into class material just as any other disaster in the area would be. Oil spills, both natural and human caused, are nothing new to the Gulf, he said.

"I've written papers about oil spills as long ago as 1977," he said.

BP;s refusal to heed the drilling rig engineers' warning that the choke collar, which stops the flow of oil in the event of an accident, was compromised is part of what lead to the disaster, Hall said. Although that was part of the problem, a spill of this magnitude was inevitable, given the nature of the energy industry, he said.

"If it didn't happen that time it would have happened another time," he said. "People were cutting corners and there were protocols that they should have been following but they didn't."

This article was published originally Aug. 25, 2010, in the Daily Orange, Syracuse University's student newspaper.