Oil-spill projects reveal unexpected economic findings

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UAB solicited applications this past fall for pilot projects to explore the economic, health and social effects the Deepwater Horizon Gulf Oil Spill exerted on all aspects of life in the Gulf coastal states. The UAB Gulf Oil Response Initiative received numerous applications and funded 16 university projects for a total $308,344.

Oil blobs like these were common along the shores of the Gulf Coast states in the spring and summer of 2010 after the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill. UAB researchers have received funding to investigate the damage caused to the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem.

Eleven departments received internal funding for pilot projects, including chemistry, biology, accounting and finance, pharmacology, justice sciences, government, foreign languages and literatures, health behavior, environmental health sciences, epidemiology and health care organization and policy. Because of the magnitude of the disaster and its impact on the state, the university invested resources to allow for rapid response – and to set the stage for significant future external funding for research on potential long-term consequences.

Mike Perez, program manager in Computer and Information Sciences, worked with David Graves, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Chemistry to initiate the UAB Gulf Oil Spill Summit this past fall. The purpose of the summit was to bring together an interdisciplinary group of UAB faculty to determine the ways their research could address some of the problems caused by the oil spill. The pilot projects and other funded activities were the result of the summit.

“Pilot projects are especially important in the context of a major outlier event such as the Gulf Oil Spill,” Perez says. “They are a cost-effective way to test and refine hypotheses, evaluate data collection and statistical and analytical procedures, eliminate many problems that might otherwise occur under a full study, and it provides a low-cost means to assess whether or not to proceed to a full study.”

The pilot grant projects were funded by the Office of Vice President for Research and Economic Development and the deans of the schools that funded the projects. Projects funded ranged from assessing the social and attitudinal impacts of the spill in coastal Alabama to Gulf oil spill-related exposure assessment among elementary school children in Mobile County to foreclosures.

Accounting & Finance assistant professors Stephanie Rauterkus, Ph.D., Lary Cowart, Ph.D., and Andreas Rauterkus, Ph.D., spent most of this past fall studying the affect of the spill on foreclosure rates and residential real estate values in Gulf Coast communities. Both of those research proposals have been accepted to the American Real Estate Society Conference in Seattle April 14-17, and Rauterkus presented early findings at a Federal Reserve conference in Montgomery earlier this year.

Oil spill projects funded by UAB

Eugenia Kharlampieva, Chemistry; $22,000
Biodegradable sponge-like polymeric microparticles for effective oil removal

Douglas Watson, Biology; $20,000
Endocrine disruption by crude oil and chemical dispersant: Impacts on basic cellular and physiological processes in a key invertebrate species in the Gulf of Mexico

Thane Wibbels, Biology; $3,500
Genetic implications of relocating loggerhead sea turtle eggs from the Alabama Coast in response to the deepwater horizon oil spill

Stephanie Rauterkus, Finance; $16,700
Foreclosure in the Gulf after the oil spill

Stephen Barnes, Pharmacology; $19,152
Upgrade of GC-MS instrument for the analysis of oil contaminants in biological samples and other materials emanating from Gulf oil research projects

Elizabeth Gardner, Justice Sciences; $18,500
Study of the response of oil degrading bacteria as a consequence of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill

Kent Kerley, Justice Sciences; $12,616
& Michael Howell-Moroney, Government
Assessing the social and attitudinal impacts of the Deepwater Horizon spill in Coastal Alabama

Shahid Mukhtar, Biology; $21,950
Investigation of the detrimental effects of oil spill on phytoplanktons using a range of physiological and molecular methods

Karolina Pajerowska-Mukhtar, Biology; $20,000
Evaluating the toxic effect of Gulf oil spill on turtle grass

Mickie Powell, Biology; $20,000
High sensitivity toxicity screening of dispersants and residual oil using molecular biomarkers

Thane Wibbels, Biology, $13,990
Assessing the impact of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on the diamondback terrapin: A keystone species in the salt marshes of Alabama

Herman Foushee, Health Behavior; $20,000
Vulnerability, resiliency, and adaptation in communities impacted by the Gulf oil spill

Claudiu Lungu, Environmental Health Sciences; $19,992
Method development for the use of dispersant as a leading indicator of oil contamination and exposure following the Gulf oil spill

Lamia Zayzafoon, Foreign Languages & Literatures; $20,000
Gated communities inside the global village: Metaphors of pollution in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill crisis

Nalini Sathiakumar, Epidemiology; $20,000
Gulf oil spill-related exposure assessment among elementary school children in Mobile County, Ala.

Andrew Rucks, Health Care Organization & Policy; $39,944
Measuring Gulf Coast community resilience: A pilot study

Rauterkus was particularly interested in examining the oil spill’s affect on foreclosures along the coast in the wake of the American housing crisis during the past two years.

Significant regional differences exist in foreclosure rates, and some studies have shown that these differences are due to the degree to which an area experienced housing price run-up and other economic indicators such as unemployment. Anecdotal evidence showed that the Deepwater Horizon spill exacerbated the negative effects of the recent recession for Gulf Coast residents. Rauterkus’ proposed research to determine if foreclosure rates rose in the affected areas more than in other parts of the state, but the results were surprising.

“When you think about people affected by the oil spill, you think about people who have income due to tourism, fishing or any marine-related industry,” Rauterkus says. “But as I talked to people in those counties, many of those folks don’t own homes. They rent. Now you have to figure out from whom are they renting and how they are affected. These are questions and nuances of the housing crisis that we didn’t think about initially. It’s going to be difficult to tie the spill to a housing outcome.”

Rauterkus says the acceptance of both of her research projects for the conference shows the topic is popular in the industry. She still is concerned whether enough time has passed to make a truly accurate assessment, particularly on the foreclosure research.

“For example, we were trying to compare it to other natural disasters that had an impact on housing. In California, you’ve got earthquakes,” Rauterkus says. “They’ve found that it takes 12 to 18 months before you really see an increase in foreclosures and significant economic distress.

“We might be a little bit early trying to tie the spill to economic distress, but we’ve got some interesting things happening so far,” she says.

Rauterkus says the important part of Gulf oil spill-related research projects is to gather information to help plan for future disasters.

“The thing we have to capitalize on when we have any kind of disaster is what can we learn from it so when the next bad thing happens we are prepared,” Rauterkus says. “What really stinks is when we’re caught off guard and we don’t know what to do or how to help. We want to think about how this compares to a natural disaster, what other types of man-made disasters can have these same affects and how we mitigate them.”