2016 Science, Technology and Environment

Christopher D. Doley

Crafted a comprehensive, multibillion dollar plan to repair the immense damage to waterways, land, fish and wildlife in the Gulf of Mexico caused by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the biggest environmental disaster in U.S. history, covered 1,100 miles of shoreline from Texas to Florida. It polluted the water, damaged beaches and wetlands, and harmed birds, dolphins, fish, sea turtles and other marine life.

The Coast Guard rushed in to contain and clean up as much as possible of the134 million gallons of oil that gushed out of BP’s offshore well during 87 agonizing days in 2010. But the massive job of restoring the environment remains, an enormous long-term task now being led by Christopher Doley of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Working with a trustee council comprised of four federal agencies and five states that were affected, Doley and his 100-person NOAA team conducted detailed scientific assessments, and painstakingly crafted a comprehensive, multibillion dollar restoration plan that will continue for the next 10 to 15 years.

“Chris has been essential to bringing all of the state and federal players to the table to create the nation’s largest-ever environmental restoration program,” said Eileen Sobeck, assistant administrator of NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service.

“Many people understand the big picture, but Chris is the one who is making it a reality, who is taking all of the individual pieces and making them fit into the puzzle,” Sobeck said.

Patricia Montanio, director of NOAA’s Office of Habitat Conservation, said Doley has “a strong environmental and public service ethic” and “understands that accomplishments come through partnerships and building long-term relationships.”

Doley led state and federal partners through “contentious negotiations with BP” regarding the early restoration projects, and encouraged his team and the affected parties to “think bigger and more creatively to come up with innovative options that will most directly benefit the injured natural resources,” Montanio said.

The first phase of the restoration, funded with $1 billion BP provided initially, is now underway. The longer-term plan will use billions of dollars more from a BP legal settlement with the Justice Department, a case Doley assisted by providing detailed documentation of the massive environmental damage.

The effort is designed to restore wetlands and coastal habitats, improve water quality, reconstitute damaged recreational areas and create conditions for marine life and wildlife to thrive throughout the Gulf region.

One major ongoing project involves rebuilding a barrier island off the coast of Louisiana, a huge endeavor that will deposit 13.4 million cubic yards of sand in the Gulf—enough to fill the New Orleans Superdome three times. The 1,100-acre barrier island will protect the coastal wetlands, create important habitats and serve as a buffer for the mainland during storms. Three other such barrier island projects for the region are on the drawing board.

Projects either in progress or that will start soon include creating safe havens and nesting areas for sea turtles and birds, working with fisheries to reduce the catching of bluefin tuna before they reach adulthood, restoring oyster grounds, creating coastal dunes and restoring marshlands. 

Doley and his team engaged in cutting-edge science that involved studying the wide array of toxic effects on fish and wildlife from the oil spill, including death, disease, reduced growth and impaired reproduction, according to Jennifer Steger, the Northwest and Alaska regional manager for the NOAA Restoration Center.

Doley’s expertise stems from years leading the NOAA Restoration Center, where he has been involved in restoring more than 100,000 acres of habitat nationwide. He helped restore estuaries in Washington’s Puget Sound, institute water conservation initiatives in California, and make 2,000 stream miles suitable for migratory salmon, herring and many other species.

Assessing the injury and developing a plan to restore the natural resources in the Gulf region was a “monumental task” that involved a “huge collaboration” with many affected interests, and extensive negotiations with BP over a number of years, Doley said.

“I have a deep appreciation for these natural resources and the impact that the oil spill had on the entire ecosystem and the people in the region,” he said. “Our goal has been to preserve and restore these resources for the current and for future generations.”