Check Out This $1 Million Prize to Tackle Dead Zones in the Gulf

A large patch of water in the Gulf of Mexico is nearly devoid of oxygen. Tulane University wants to pay you a million of the Patrick F. Taylor Foundation's dollars to solve the problem. Phyllis Taylor, the deal's primary orchestrator and Tulane trustee, announced the prize last week.

Tulane's site says the

$1 million prize will be awarded to the team or individual that creates a testable and scaled operating model that meets the challenge's goals of creating a significant new way to address hypoxia in an efficient, cost effective and scalable way. We expect the winning innovation will succeed as a market driven solution and the win[n]ing team, as well as all competitors, will reap many benefits above and beyond the grand prize. 

One of the earliest recorded usages of the phrase "dead zone" in an ecological sense appears in Half Mile Down, a collection of writings by undersea explorer William Beebe. During a 1934 bathysphere dive off the coast of Bermuda, he describes "a wide expanse of desert, with no fish or plumes or living coral." Beebe admittedly had "no idea of the significance of this dead zone" at the time.

The National Science and Technology Council now defines "hypoxic waters," or "dead zones" as they are often called, as those with an oxygen concentration of 2 parts per million or less. Most sea-life cannot subsist under these conditions. 

Dead zones are both multiplying and getting worse. They have doubled in quantity every 10 years since 1960, and 400 such areas existed in 2008, according to Science magazine. As the graphics below indicate, the Gulf of Mexico's dead zone grew significantly between 2001 and 2013. 

Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone, 2001

Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone, 2013

Nitrogen-rich fertilizer is a leading cause of dead zones. Large quantities of the nutrient seep into rivers like the Mississippi, and those rivers empty out in places like the Gulf of Mexico. Nitrogen-rich water attracts phytoplankton, which then proliferate. Other plants and animals eat the phytoplankton and excrete it; those excretions sink downward. Bacteria then decompose those excretions, meanwhile consuming large quantities of oxygen. Dead zones form during this process and then rise back toward the surface.

The $1 million that the Patrick F. Taylor Foundation now offers to marine ecologists to fix this problem has an even more complex story behind it. 

Taylor Energy was once one of the largest offshore oil drilling operations in the Gulf of Mexico. Phyllis Taylor took over as chairperson and CEO at Taylor after her husband, Patrick, passed away in 2004.

An underground mudslide destroyed several of Taylor Energy’s rigs in 2004 during Hurricane Ivan. Debate continues with regard to how much oil they now release into the Gulf. For example, Phyllis Taylor announced the $1 million prize at Tulane this past Monday, February 17th. The government reported that about a half-gallon of oil leaked from the site that day. Skytruth.org puts that number closer to 70 gallons. 

The company kept drilling for several years after the hurricane. Taylor Energy produced 2.1 million barrels of crude oil in 2007, and Phyllis Taylor kept making money. Forbes estimated that she was worth around $1.6 billion in 2007.

Two South Korean companies bought out most of the drilling operation in 2008 for an undisclosed sum. Taylor Energy Co. dissolved and the state seized a good deal of the proceeds. The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement now holds about $400 million in a fund “that is earmarked for recovery operations," according to comments by Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu at a September 2013 hearing.

What the government did not take went into the Patrick F. Taylor Foundation, of which Phyllis is also president and chairperson. In 2010, New Orleans City Business reported that the foundation “is solely supported by Taylor Energy Co., the assets of which will be converted into cash to support the philanthropic arm.”

2012 tax filings show that the Patrick F. Taylor Foundation held $2 million in JP Morgan corporate bonds, around $855,000 in the bank's real estate fund, $1.8 million in a high-yield fund and almost another $1 million more in a JP Morgan short duration bond fund.