Was the Response Adequate? Our Readers Weigh In

In posts here, here, and here, we questioned the adequacy and promptness of the Obama administration’s response to the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Next, we gave equal time to a reader who works for one of the agencies conducting the effort and argued that they are doing as well as possible. We asked other knowledgeable readers to weigh in, and a number have. Here are some samples.
A journalist writes:

I had the opportunity to participate in a media briefing with Admiral Thad Allen, the Incident Commander for the current Gulf oil spill this past week. Adm. Allen talked about the planning that goes on for these types of disasters. He was IC for a drill in 2002, in New Orleans, that simulated a wellhead blowout. The last drill in this series actually happened in late March, in Maine.
The government, according to Allen, is relying on BP and the industry to solve the problem of the 3 leaks. He was pretty clear that the Navy and the government do not have the capability to work at that depth with the necessary tools. The government is supplying booms and applying dispersal agents as the weather allows.
I spoke with Admiral Allen a few months ago, and his point at that time was that we have NO resources on the North Slope of Alaska in the event of an accident. At least this event is taking place in an area with existing materials and ships.

This reader argues that the administration is suffering from its lack of support for the Coast Guard:

The response to the Deep Water Horizon disaster really needed to start long before the well actually blew up. The Coast Guard is the US agency primarily responsible for dealing with maritime environmental threats, as well as a host of other responsibilities heaped upon it since 9-11. So what does Obama’s budget say about its priorities regarding the Coast Guard? This NY Times editorial does a great job of describing the situation:

Most of those who wrote in disagreed with me; maybe that was inevitable, since my comments have not been entirely consistent. Here is an example:

I read your peice with the letter from the “insider” and found your last few paragraphs to be curious, especially considering your conservative credentials…. I’m a big fan and I just read what you wrote and said “What??? Is Hinderaker advocating for more goverment?”

Well, I am advocating for the ability to control deep-sea oil spills, if possible. But that, obviously, is easier said than done. This reader doesn’t agree that the federal response has been exemplary:

If anyone thinks things are going well from the federal side then I suggest they watch the video of Governor Jindal’s press conference yesterday. His basic message, “Things aren’t working the way their supposed to.” He’s a smart guy and we should pay attention to what he is saying.
I retired from the USCG last year after 26 years. I spent about half of that 26 years in oil spill/hazmat response. I worked on two spills of national significance (Exxon Valdez and American Trader). I was directly responsible for implementing OPA ’90 for the USCG unit with the largest area of responsibility. I’m intimately familiar with the issues this person cites but am under no illusions about the Coast Guard’s ability to manage this. The USCG response has suffered from a lack of experience within the organization and a failure of the senior leadership to maintain their response capability. The same was true of the Exxon Valdez response (the USCG had actually closed one Strike Team before that spill and was planning on getting rid of the other two.) Some things never change.

This reader, likewise:

For info different from what your “…A reader who works “on the inside,”…” provided, see http://blog.al.com/live/2010/04/burning_should_have_started_a.html
MOBILE, Ala. — Federal officials should have started burning oil off the surface of the Gulf last week, almost as soon as the spill happened, said the former oil spill response coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Ron Gouguet, who also managed Louisiana’s oil response team for a time, said federal officials missed a narrow window of opportunity to gain control of the spill by burning last week, before the spill spread hundreds of miles across the Gulf, and before winds began blowing toward shore.

This reader took me to task for saying that if we really have no ability to deal with a major offshore spill, advocates of offshore drilling (like me) may have to rethink our positions:

I don’t think the prudent thinker would decide that we need to look at shale instead of drilling offshore (extracting oil from shale is quite expensive for one point). There are always inherent dangers in these endeavors–on or off shore. Every possible safety measure is implemented. We don’t stop electricity altogether when someone or some group get electrocuted! Many jobs have some element of danger, especially those that involve our energy. I have a background as a geologist and my ex-husband (petroleum engineer) is one of those hired by BP to try to shut in this blow-out. He and his partner are world wide experts in this field and are often called to shut in blow-outs. This one I believe is particularly difficult and no one knows at this point why none of the failsafes held. I think there is more to know and it seems a bit hysterical to call for a dramatic change in our energy plan (which is already compromised by radical groups) at this time.

I certainly agree with that. In fact, I would add to it. Just a couple of weeks ago, 21 coal miners were buried following a tragic accident. Yet no one called for the abolition of coal mining. Likewise, no matter what the economic and environmental damage from the Deepwater Horizon explosion may be, the worst consequence of the explosion was the death of eleven oil rig workers. Yet their deaths did not prompt calls for restriction of offshore drilling; it was only when the oil began to spread that such demands were made. Do we care more about sea birds than people? Perhaps so.
Finally, I’ve continued an interesting email exchange with our original insider. I asked him whether it is really true that we can’t do much about a major offshore spill. I posited three possibilities: 1) the Obama administration didn’t have a plan to respond to a major spill; 2) it had a plan, and we’re seeing it; 3) it had a plan and it could have worked, except it wasn’t implemented promptly, or the weather turned bad, or something. Our reader opted (mostly, anyway) for alternative 2:

The answer is #2. The US does have a plan, and a national response “system” – and you are seeing it in action. Google the acronym “SONS” and you will see how this system is exercised.
The US system is far superior to that of the rest of the world; so much so that the EU has been slowly but surely adopting elements of the US system – esp. after the Prestige and Erica debacles a few years back.
With respect to the Feds stepping in if the spiller doesn’t perform, yes, they could do that – in fact the CG and the EPA do that all of the time, especially when the source of the spill can’t be found or if the spiller has no resources. In this instance, if BP walked away, the CG would take over and would start contracting the same private sector assests and people that BP is using. The CG would use the Oil Spill Liabilty Trust Fund to pay for it.

Our reader is not so sure that the environmental damage will prove massive:

As far as “damage” from this spill goes, we’ll have to see what actually happens. Prevention (i.e. a blowout preventer that works as designed) is the best way to avoid damages, but if you have a spill, sound response strategies and tactics are your best way to mitigate damages. It is still early in the response and most of the oil has stayed offshore so far. The strategies and tactics being employed are state of the art and are being successfully implemented, for the most part. Just like in war, the weather can mess you up, and there have been some challenges due to bad weather. But on balance, the oil spill response component of this exercise is being well executed, in my opinion. We’ll see what happens over the next few weeks. Hopefully the response system will be validated and mitigate much of the potential damage…the larger post-OPA history supports this hypothesis, but this is the first Exxon Valdez-class spill we’ve had since the Exxon Valdez spill, and the largest we have seen from an out-of-control well in the US since then.

Our reader concludes:

Right now, I think it’s too early for you to start scraping the “Drill Baby Drill” sticker off of your bumper.

That, I definitely agree with!


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