The decision on whether to use chemical dispersants deep below the sea's surface to break up the Gulf of Mexico oil spill boils down to two central questions:
Is it worth taking this unprecedented step to protect the region's sensitive and ecologically valuable wetlands, even at the potential expense of its marine life? And should federal officials conduct extensive new research before making the leap, since the scientific literature on this question is so sparse?
"It's sort of the devil you know versus the devil you don't," said Linda Greer, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "It's really shocking to me how little research has been done into these basic questions."
Responders to the downed Deepwater Horizon rig have already spent days applying more than 150,000 gallons of oil dispersant -- Nalco's Corexit 9500 -- to break up the tens of thousands of gallons of oil that have reached the ocean's surface.
Cal Dooley, president of the American Chemistry Council, said Wednesday that chemical companies "have taken extraordinary steps to increase our dispersant production and institute new coordination measures to meet the need. Other chemistry products with potential applications include detergents and absorbents. We applaud these companies' prompt action and strong commitment in addressing this challenge."