So far, the likelihood of any oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico reaching New Jersey's shores is remote.

But the state isn't taking any chances.

On Tuesday, Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bob Martin announced the formation of a "gulf spill team" to monitor the situation daily, create a scientific model of how the oil could reach New Jersey, and, in case it does, develop a plan of action.

The move was met with both praise from environmental groups that fear the worst and derision from a critic who said that given the agency's limited funds and staff, it had far more important environmental matters to tend to.

"Right now, we are optimistic the oil will not reach New Jersey and will not affect fishing nor the summer beach season," Martin said in a prepared statement.

"However, we are keeping a close watch on this situation."

The key, said Josh Kohut, assistant professor of marine and coastal science at Rutgers University and one of the scientists working with the agency, is whether the spill is carried by the gulf's Loop Current around the tip of Florida and into the Gulf Stream, which flows north along the Atlantic Coast.

"There's a lot of uncertainty in this," Kohut said. "Ocean currents can change. So you have to continue to watch what they are doing until you know where all the oil is."

Unlike a shipping accident, where a finite amount of oil is involved, the current spill is like tracking a new spill every day "because there's still oil coming out," Kohut said.

Cindy Zipf, executive director of Clean Ocean Action, a nonprofit advocacy group, praised the state for being "proactive. I think having an action team is right on."

She added that the state developed "a very aggressive oil-spill tool kit" after the 2004 oil spill in the Delaware River from the Athos I tanker. "With some additions, it would be very appropriate for the Jersey Shore as well."

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, agreed it was important to develop new contingency plans "not only because of the spill in the gulf but because of the potential to drill off the coast of Virginia."

The federal Minerals Management Service recently opened an area from the northern tip of Delaware south to potential drilling.

But Bill Wolfe, director of New Jersey PEER - a nonprofit group whose acronym stands for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility - called the state action ludicrous.

"Let's just say I'm flabbergasted by the irony," said Wolfe, a former DEP employee and now a frequent critic.

He said Gov. Christie's current policies, including more self-regulation of industry, "are exactly the kind of problem that caused the oil spill to begin with."

"There are so many issues that it masks," he added. "It leads to the appearance that the department is actively engaged and has the staff resources and leadership to respond. None of that exists."

Department spokesman Larry Ragonese said the potential for the oil spill to reach New Jersey, however slim, was impossible to ignore.

"With a coastal industry of tourism and fishing, which brings in billions of dollars a year, the commissioner felt this was not something that we could just watch and hope did not come to the state."

Scientists have been creating models for best-case and worst-case scenarios, taking into account water currents, depths, temperatures, and salinity, as well as weather conditions and potential storms.

"The scientists tell us that it's not likely to hit New Jersey's coast," Ragonese said. "But they cannot be sure. The key thing here is they're telling us this is a unique event."

He said the department was spending "virtually no money" on the effort, using in-house staff and the help of scientists from Rutgers and the Center for Marine Systems at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken.

Even if the oil does not come, "this is not wasted effort," Ragonese said, likening the exercise to drills for hurricanes and nuclear accidents.

An Environmental Protection Agency spokeswoman did not respond to a request for information on whether states to the south were setting up similar teams.

Kohut said the Rutgers lab had already been running routine models of regional ocean currents as part of a broad effort funded by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.

If the oil eventually heads north, "we need to know what's happening locally so we can understand what the potential risks are," Kohut said.

Rutgers, which has been a leader in robotic ocean exploration, also has sent one of its underwater gliders to the gulf. Tuesday, it was 60 miles south-southwest of Tampa, Fla., surfacing every three hours to transmit data back to land.

Kohut said the data were being used to help forecast the Loop Current and predict the trajectory of the spill.

Contact staff writer Sandy Bauers
at 215-854-5147 or sbauers@phillynews.com.
Visit her blog at http://go.philly.com/greenspace.