Maryland scientist brings experience to oil spill panel

National commission charged with recommending procedures to prevent similar incidents

June 15, 2010|By Timothy B. Wheeler, The Baltimore Sun

When President Barack Obama's commission begins sorting out what went wrong on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico and how to prevent such disasters, one panel member will have a head start in understanding what's at stake, both for the environment and for society.

Donald F. Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, was born and raised in New Orleans and has studied the ecological impact of offshore oil and gas development. For a decade, while directing a marine science laboratory in Louisiana, he lived in a town near the coast where his neighbors made a living on and around the drilling rigs that dot the northern Gulf.

"The kids that went to school with my daughter were children of oil field workers and shrimpers," he recalled Tuesday. "So, I have some sense of what it means to people there — not only the oil spill, but the oil economy, the balance, the seeming conflicts of relying on resources and fossil energy."

Boesch, 64, who lives in Annapolis, was one of five panel members announced Monday by the White House to serve on the commission, which is charged with reviewing the causes of the Deepwater Horizon blowout in April and to make recommendations on changes in law, regulations and government agencies dealing with offshore drilling. The panel, created by executive order, is to be headed by Bob Graham, a Democratic former Florida governor and U.S. senator, and William K. Reilly, a former chief of the Environmental Protection Agency.

For Boesch, it is the most high-profile of a series of tasks he has taken on over the years to give scientific advice to policymakers and the public. He has served as science adviser for the Chesapeake Bay restoration effort and for several state and federal agencies. Recently, he's been heading an ocean studies board while also serving on a National Academies of Science committee on climate change.

His appointment was promptly hailed by politicians he's advised, including Gov. Martin O'Malley and Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Maryland Democrat. Colleagues and friends say Boesch is an excellent choice, because of his Louisiana roots, his expertise and his temperament.

"He has extensive experience in the Gulf of Mexico, and he still has very strong ties in Louisiana," said John Wells, director of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, where Boesch did graduate study and served for a time on the research faculty. "So, he's a natural."

"He works 70 hours a week, and has as long as I've known him," said Christopher D'Elia, dean of the School of the Coast and Environment at Louisiana State University and a former professor at the University of Maryland's Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, one of three facilities Boesch has overseen for the past two decades.

Still, D'Elia said he believes that Boesch's latest assignment will challenge him as never before. The unsettled debate in Washington over the nation's energy policy makes the topic "a political minefield," D'Elia said.

On Tuesday, Boesch declined to discuss his views on the oil spill or his work on the commission, saying that he had not been officially briefed on his duties. But he said he hoped that his background and experience would be of help.

But in an interview last month, as the oil spread in the Gulf of Mexico, he was less reticent. He said the blowout is "an object lesson of the Faustian bargain, if you will, that folks down there have gone into. You have the impressive riches of the surface environment, the productivity. But the lure of having it all, having the wells associated with oil production has come at a real price."

Boesch picked up his appreciation for the Gulf region, and his scientific bent, at an early age.

He grew up in New Orleans' 9th Ward, now known for the breadth of the devastation there after Hurricane Katrina. From the time he was little, he recalled, his father, a paint salesman, and his uncles used to take him fishing in the marshes on the east side of the city.

"After I got bored fishing, I'd collect some oysters and … crabs, things like that," he said. "That's sort of been with me."

In 10th grade, inspired by a biology teacher, Boesch set his heart on becoming a marine biologist. He earned a Bachelor of Science degree at Tulane University, and a doctoral degree at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, an arm of the College of William & Mary, forging a tie to the Chesapeake region, where he would eventually settle.

After a Fulbright fellowship in Australia, he taught at the Virginia institute for several years before returning to Louisiana, where he became the first executive director of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, a multischool research center.

He stayed there for a decade, until 1990, when he came to Maryland to become president of UM's environmental science center, which provides graduate training and research at two laboratories on the Chesapeake Bay and one in the mountains, at Frostburg.

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