Was the Federal Response to the Deepwater Horizon Disaster Adequate?

Administration officials made the rounds of the news talk shows today to defend their response to the Gulf oil spill disaster. To hear them tell it, President Obama’s reaction was swift and sure. On Fox News Sunday, Chris Wallace quizzed Janet Napolitano:

WALLACE: A number of Louisiana officials are saying that the Obama administration was slow to respond to this crisis. And I want to review the timeline of what has happened here. On April 20th, the explosion of the drilling platform. For days, BP and the Coast Guard say there is no leak. On April 24th, we’re told it’s leaking 1,000 barrels a day. On April 28th, the estimate is raised to 5,000 barrels a day. It’s not until April 29th, nine days after the accident, that the president makes his first statement about what is now called an incident of national significance.
Secretary Napolitano, should the administration have responded faster?
NAPOLITANO: Oh, the administration responded with all hands on deck from day one. What happened is the situation itself evolved. The situation evolved from an explosion and a search-and-rescue mission to several days later the actual sinking of the rig. At that point in time, the oil was being burned off on the surface. To the next phase, was that the oil began to spread, and could not all and was not all being burned off on the surface. And then we had assets in place, already predeployed, more than 70 vessels, hundreds of thousands of feet of boom. The command center, the integrated command center the commandant referred to was already stood up, with the states involved from day one, I might say.

On CNN, Ken Salazar weighed in:

From Day One, there has been assumption of the worst-case scenario…We have never seen anything quite like this order of magnitude.

But that Johnny-on-the-spot account assorts poorly with the known facts. Napolitano describes the Gulf crisis as “evolving” in “phases.” She argues that only in the third phase did the oil start to spread. But from the very beginning, when the Deepwater Horizon blew up on April 20, the potential for environmental disaster was obvious. This is what the doomed rig looked like on April 21, the morning after the explosion. That stuff that is burning is oil:
The New York Times reported the same day, April 21:

On Wednesday afternoon crews were still fighting the fire, which was largely contained to the rig but in photographs provided by the Coast Guard appeared to be shooting enormous plumes of flame into the air. Admiral Landry estimated that 13,000 gallons of crude were pouring out per hour.
Officials said the pollution was considered minimal so far because most of the oil and gas was being burned up in the fire. “But that does have the potential to change,” said David Rainey, the vice president in charge of the Gulf of Mexico exploration for BP, which is leasing the rig.

It should have been no surprise that at some point the oil would begin to spread. A few days later, on April 24, it was confirmed that the well was leaking oil. The Times reported:

Robotic devices monitoring the deepwater well where a giant oil rig exploded and sank last week have discovered oil leaking from the well, a development that a senior Coast Guard official on Saturday called a “game changer.” …
Roughly 1,000 barrels of oil a day are estimated to be emanating from the riser, officials said. … The sheen of crude oil and water mix on the surface of the water was still more than 40 miles from shore at its closest point on Saturday. “That gives us a lot of time to try to mitigate in response to the spill,” Admiral Landry said.
The sheen had spread to a 20-by-20-mile area, Coast Guard officials said.
High winds and 10-foot seas have prevented the oil spill response vessels from making it to the site to continue cleanup on Saturday. But the Coast Guard had contained 33,726 gallons of oil-water mix from the area.
“We’ve been quite successful with on-water skimming,” Admiral Landry said.

Janet Napolitano says that more than 70 vessels had been “predeployed” by the time the oil began to spread. How does that fit with the Times’s report that by the 24th, the expanding oil spill covered 400 square miles, and “high winds and 10-foot seas have prevented the oil spill response vessels from making it to the site”? If vessels had been deployed earlier–on April 21, say–would they have been able to fight the spreading oil slick more effectively? At this point, we don’t know.
On April 26, six days after the Deepwater Horizon blew up and three days before Barack Obama’s first public statement on the spill, the Times reported that the Gulf spill was “threatening to become an environmental disaster.”
By April 29, the scale of the impending devastation was becoming obvious. President Obama belatedly swung into action. The Times reported:

On Thursday, President Obama offered [to BP] the assistance of an array of government agencies, including the military, while noting that, under federal law, “BP is ultimately responsible for funding the cost of response and cleanup operations.”

“Thursday” evidently means April 29–nine days after the Deepwater Horizon exploded. Was this really the first time that Obama offered federal assistance to British Petroleum? It is hard to believe, but that is what the Times implies.
The next day, April 30, the Times specifically acknowledged that the Obama administration’s response to the disaster had been slow:

The federal government also had opportunities to move more quickly, but did not do so while it waited for a resolution to the spreading spill from BP….
The Department of Homeland Security waited until Thursday to declare that the incident was “a spill of national significance,” and then set up a second command center in Mobile. The actions came only after the estimate of the size of the spill was increased fivefold to 5,000 barrels a day.
The delay meant that the Homeland Security Department waited until late this week to formally request a more robust response from the Department of Defense, with Ms. Napolitano acknowledging even as late as Thursday afternoon that she did not know if the Defense Department even had equipment that might be helpful.
By Friday afternoon, she said, the Defense Department had agreed to send two large military transport planes to spray chemicals that can disperse the oil while it is still in the Gulf.
Officials initially seemed to underestimate the threat of a leak, just as BP did last year when it told the government such an event was highly unlikely. Rear Adm. Mary E. Landry, the chief Coast Guard official in charge of the response, said on April 22, after the rig sank, that the oil that was on the surface appeared to be merely residual oil from the fire, though she said it was unclear what was going on underwater. The day after, officials said that it appeared the well’s blowout preventer had kicked in and that there did not seem to be any oil leaking from the well, though they cautioned it was not a guarantee.

It appears clear from this record that the Obama administration 1) underestimated what was obviously a major incident with potential for environmental catastrophe, and assumed a best-case scenario–the opposite of what Ken Salazar now claims; 2) relied for too long on British Petroleum to contain the spill, without taking decisive action to protect American interests in the Gulf Coast; 3) had no real plan in place for how a major spill in the Gulf could be contained; and 4) to this day, remains obsessed with asserting that financial responsibility lies with BP, without any apparent understanding of how inadequate such liability will prove to those whose livelihoods have been devastated.
It will take months and years for all of the relevant facts to become known, but I suspect that before too long, the Obama administration will default to its strongest defense: that while its response may have been ill-prepared, short-sighted and slow, it didn’t matter, because even an adequate, timely response could not have prevented the destruction that it appears will result from the Deepwater Horizon incident. That may turn out to be true. Whether this defense will satisfy voters remains to be seen.
UPDATE: Much more here, including a NOAA document that indicates what the federal agencies knew about the potential spill by the day after the explosion, and an email from a reader who is working on the government’s response to the spill and things the agencies have done all that they could.

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