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.
Though much of his time now is devoted to administration, Boesch has done research along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, in eastern Australia and the East China Sea. He has published two books and more than 90 papers, focusing on coastal issues, including the loss of wetlands, "dead zones" in the Chesapeake, the Gulf and elsewhere, and oil pollution.
"It means a lot to me that he's on the panel," said Nancy Rabalais, executive director of the Louisiana marine research center that Boesch first ran. He recruited Rabalais, and they later co-edited a scientific report on the long-term effects of offshore oil and gas development. He also did research there that indicated that oily discharges from wells were contaminating some oysters.
Along the way, Boesch has shown a willingness to tackle touchy issues. In the late 1990s, amid uproar over fish with sores on the Eastern Shore and complaints of memory loss among fishermen who handled the fish, Boesch was tapped to advise Maryland policymakers on how to respond. He pulled together nine scientists who concluded that although it wasn't clear what prompted the fish kills, they were occurring in waters polluted with nutrients washing off farmland fertilized with poultry manure. The group urged the state to act to curb farm runoff, which led to a state law in 1998, despite complaints from farmers that they were being blamed unfairly for the fish illnesses.
"Throughout my career, I've always been interested in research that had a practical application," Boesch said.
Unlike some researchers, he has embraced the role of trying to explain the complexities of science to policymakers and the public. "It's always a challenge to communicate what we know and what we don't know," he said, and sometimes that advice doesn't always get through.
"He's not a 'yes' person," said Robert J. Orth, a professor of marine science at the Virginia institute, who began his scientific career as a fellow graduate student with Boesch there.
More recently, Boesch has taken heat from climate-change skeptics for his outspoken defense of the scientific evidence that human activity is warming the planet. In the wake of his appointment to the oil spill panel, some bloggers have suggested that he would not be open-minded. They cited a blog post he wrote last month for The Washington Post, saying that the huge spill was a reminder that "we should be redoubling our efforts to get off oil" and he hoped "for Earth's sake" that Congress would finally pass energy legislation.
"I've always operated from the standpoint that my fundamental responsibility is to tell the truth as I know it, even if it's not necessarily welcome," Boesch said Tuesday. "I've found over the years [that] if I stuck to those principles, things have a way of coming around, and you keep your integrity."
Who the president picked
Donald F. Boesch
Birthplace: New Orleans
Education: B.S., Tulane University; Ph.D., College of William & Mary
Career: President, University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, 1990-present; executive director, Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, 1980-1990; faculty, Virginia Institute of Marine Science, 1970s
Research interests: science and environmental policy, coastal pollution and impacts of climate change
Spare time: kayaking, genealogical research
President Obama's independent commission
Bob Graham, former Florida governor, U.S. senator (Democrat)
William K. Reilly, former EPA administrator (under President George H.W. Bush)
Frances G. Beinecke, president, Natural Resources Defense Council
Donald F. Boesch, president of the University of Maryland's Center for Environmental Science
Terry D. Garcia, executive vice president, National Geographic Society
Cherry Murray, dean, Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences
Frances Ulmer, chancellor, University of Alaska Anchorage