Was the Federal Response to the Deepwater Horizon Disaster Adequate? Part II

A reader who works “on the inside,” as he put it, in dealing with disasters like the Deepwater Horizon spill, writes to defend the government’s actions so far:

I am also no fan of the Obama Administration, and while I normally enjoy it when he catches grief, in this instance the criticism is undeserved.
The federal and industry response to this disaster was appropriate and timely. What you heard on FNS from the senior officials was completely accurate. We (BP and the CG and MMS and NOAA) knew from the first day the disaterous potential of this thing and began to respond immediately with an appropriately huge amount of resources. As the problem unfolded, we threw more and more resources at it.
Most people cannot appreciate the technical challenges and daily miracles of deepwater drilling and production. It is in many respects more difficult than manned spaceflight or planetary exploration. It’s an endeavor on the very leading edge of human capability, and when things go wrong, our capabilities are severely tested.
I wish the collective psyche of America would frame this as an Apollo 13 moment instead of an Exxon Valdez moment, but I know that will never happen.
Sadly, the ignorance about drilling is matched by an ignorance about oil spill response and cleanup. The average American does not understand oil spill response and the oil spill liabilty and compensation regime in this country.
Unlike the rest of the world, the US system is based on polluters cleaning up their own messes, with government oversight. This system has worked well in the years since the Exxon Valdez spill. OPA 90 is one of the best pieces of legislation ever passed by our hapless Congress. The number, frequency, and gallons of oil spilled in the US has dropped dramatically over the last 20 years because of this law.
I also note with some dismay that there appears to be a nationwide misconception that DOD always has a silver bullet for every sort of contingency. That is simply not true in the world of oil spills. The nation’s expertise for managing oil spill respose lies (in order) with the CG, industry experts like the Obrien’s Group and MSRC, the EPA, and NOAA.
The Department of Defense has “some” expertise, but nothing even close to that of the USCG or industry responders. In fact, when the USS Port Royal ran aground off of Honolulu in February of 2009, the Navy’s Pacific Command had no clue as to how to manage the environmental threat. CG Sector Honolulu, NOAA and industry contractor Marine Spill Response Corporation handled that problem for the Navy.
With respect to the Air Force C-130s that are assiting with the response, yes they are helpful assets- but they are simply augmenting the industry aerial dispersant delivery assets that are always on standby 24/7. The Air Force contribution is analogous to an Air Force base loaning it’s fire trucks to help deal with a wildfire..they would certainly be helpful, but not a game-changing silver bullet or magic pill. They are simply a very capable dispersant delivery system.
The DOD is not going to be the group that “saves the day” on this.
Please carefully read the NOAA report I’m pasting below. It shows that everyone involved (CG/NOAA/MMS/BP) knew of the potential for disaster from the very beginning. Please trust me when I tell you that those of us at the pointy end of the spear were going balls-to-the- wall on this thing from day one, and we weren’t sitting around waiting for “help” or “direction” or “leadership” from the President or Secretary Napalitano.
We were working the problem.

Here is the NOAA report that our reader pasted into his email:

DEEPWATER HORIZON Incident, Gulf of Mexico
Subject Evening Report, 21 April 2010 2000 hrs
From *********@noaa.gov
Date Apr-21-2010 08:01 PM
Category Situation Reports
ID Incident #8220, Entry #****** Entry is PRIVATE.
The Deepwater Horizon is on fire and continues to burn, and the vessel (a very large semisubmersible) is reported listing roughly 15 degrees and is severely damaged to the point that the stability of the vessel had been questioned.
Firefighting efforts have been scaled back because of a fear that the water applied is actual contributing to the list. The vessel remains on-location only because the riser that connects to the seafloor wellhead is acting as a mooring.
The regional NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator has deployed on-scene to the USCG Command Post at Marine Safety Unit Morgan City. The RP’s Command Post has been established at the Crisis Management Center at BP’s Houston Office. The Regional Assistant Scientific Support Coordinator will deploy on-scene to that location in the morning. Of the 126 crew reported aboard the Deepwater Horizon, 115 have been accounted for (11 crew members remain missing). USCG SAR operations are continuing, and all hope that they will be found (our thoughts and prayers go out to the families). The effort to save lives is the primary response priority.
There is a wild well release. The volume or rate of the release is unknown, but thought to be significant. The USCG has requested a best guess estimate from the RP (and I would not be surprised if that value is in the 10-20K bbl/day range, the SSC’s best guess estimated based only on past experiences). This was a new well that was undergoing a temporary plug and abandonment for future production. Most of the oil is burning at the platform generating 300 to 400 foot flames, intense heat, and black smoke. There was oil pollution reported in the water, and the extent of the slick was largely undelineated. Some reports suggested a slick 2 miles in length (better overflight reporting has been identified as a priority for tomorrow’s environmental operations). NOAA has updated the trajectory analysis. Should there be a significant release of oil on water, the trajectory suggests that the Northern GOM coast would be at risk, but it would take more than three days for oil to threaten the shorelines and the weather forecast and oceanographic currents could change. The amount of diesel on the vessel was updated to only 700,000 gallons earlier in the day, and what fraction of this that may have burned is also unknown. The RP has a wide range of on-water pollution response vessel in route or already on-scene including MSRC Response Vessels and CGA HOSS Barge skimming system. Dispersant assets have also been restaged.
The RP is working to attempt a shut in of the well at the seafloor using a ROV to activate the Blowout Prevention System. Two attempts earlier in the even have failed. It is believed that crew members had activated this system before evacuation, but there was no affect either. A third attempt is planned for later in the night. Controlling the source of the release is the most important operation outside of the SAR effort. Should the semisubmersible sink or detach from the riser, it is likely that the fire mitigation would be lost. A major oil spill would be the expected result. Failure to shut in the well using the control system at the seafloor would potentially create a continued release of crude oil until a relief well could be drill (a time period characterized as several weeks). There is a strengthening of winds and sea state predicted by Friday evening. Such weather would put even greater stress of both the vessel and the riser. This third attempt to shut in the well tonight is critical with respect to preventing a major oil spill event.
NOAA has preidentified additional response personnel to support the USCG. If the well is not secured tonight, it is likely that NOAA’s on-scene presence will ramp up to be in a better response posture should (or more likely when) the semisubmersible disconnects from the riser or seafloor connection resulting in a, most likely, major oil pollution release. It has been a long day. The situation status will be updated after the morning brief.

This report is tremendously interesting. It makes clear that by the day after the rig exploded, government officials knew that a “major oil pollution release” was likely if not inevitable. This contrasts with Janet Napolitano’s emphasis on a gradual “evolution” of the situation in the direction of an uncontained oil spill. In particular, the author of the NOAA memo says that he “would not be surprised if [the rate of release of oil from the leaking well] is in the 10-20K bbl/day range [that is, 10,000 to 20,000 barrels a day], the SSC’s best guess estimated based only on past experiences.” While this does not necessarily contradict what was told to the public–initially, that 1,000 barrels a day were leaking, and on April 28, eight days post-explosion, that the rate had increased to 5,000 barrels a day–it certainly contrasts dramatically with it. The government’s response presumably should have been predicated on the larger projection, not the lower numbers being relayed to the public. (Of course, there is much we do not know, and there could be a good reason why the higher forecast in this memo may not have been the basis for the government’s response. Or maybe the government’s ability to respond is so limited that it really doesn’t matter whether the leak is 1,000 barrels a day or 20,000.)
Here, though, is what seems most significant to me: Our reader suggests that the federal agencies did all that they could do to combat the spill, but that our capabilities are limited. The responsible person (“RP” in the NOAA memo above) was British Petroleum, which has a legal obligation to try to control the spill, and can be held liable for damages resulting from the spill. Of course that’s right. But I, for one, find it surprising that the federal government apparently lacks adequate means to control a major oil spill in the Gulf in the event that the responsible person is unable to do so. Recovery of damages is nice, but hardly equal to preventing the damage in the first place. If you negligently start a fire on your property that spreads to other people’s property, you too can be held liable for damages. But that has never caused anyone to think that we don’t need a fire department.
What I understand our reader to be telling us is that when it comes to major oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico, we don’t have a fire department. We rely on the oil companies to try to contain spills, but if the spill exceeds their capacity, there isn’t much we can do about it. Even if we know how major the spill is likely to be from the first day, and even if we deploy all of the resources at our command, a major spill cannot be controlled.
Is that really true? If so, some of us may re-think our support for offshore drilling in favor of alternatives like shale. Many more facts remain to be known before conclusions can be drawn; we invite readers who knowledgeable on this topic, especially if they work for the responsible agencies, to send us their thoughts.

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