The last time I traveled to Louisiana to observe the oil spill response, I spent a good deal of time with state and local disaster response officials and the state’s National Guard. On this visit I got to see the problem from the perspective of the federal responders, particularly the Coast Guard.
Under the Oil Spill Act of 1990, the Coast Guard is responsible for coordinating the national response to major oil spills. They work with the company responsible for the spill, in this case BP, to affect the clean-up, though as Admiral Paul Zukunft, the unified area commander for the response (the Federal on-scene coordinator) noted, “when it comes to deciding what to do the Coast Guard gets 51 percent of the vote.”
Looking at the problem from both sides here are a few points with which I think all parties involved would agree:
- The drilling moratorium makes no sense. I couldn’t find anybody to defend it. All the moratorium has done is do a double smack down on the economies of the region. The Coast Guard and the drilling industry have just finished a “Ph.D.” in oil response; even if another one happened they have never had more capacity and expertise to deal with it.
- Nobody was ready for this disaster. In the end, the Coast Guard managed to manage a response of 45,000 people; an inventory of over 11 million feet of boom (used to block, channel, and soak up oil) and a fleet of about 3,000 vessels—but it took months to get the operation up and running. Everybody agrees the Oil Spill Act of 1990 is antiquated and needs to be updated.
- The spill could have been far worse. It turns out that the warm waters of the Gulf, the lightness of the crude, and some tropical storms (that speeds breaking up the oil) helped dissipate the oil faster than expected. Ironically, a strong argument can be made that, in some ways, the deepwater drilling is safer—because, at that depth and distance from the shore, there is a lot more time and distance the oil has to cover before it reaches land, so there is more opportunity for skimming, burning, or using dispersants to break up the oil, as well as for mother nature to do her thing. All these factors again suggest that the moratorium was an unnecessary knee-jerk response.
- The Gulf states got a lucky break. The fact that no hurricane occurred during the height of the response was a godsend. The response was well underway before people seriously started planning what to do if a major storm showed up.
- Damage has been done. By the time everything was up and running, some areas, particularly marshlands (like those in Jefferson County Parish) took a real hit: beaches were contaminated and closed, oyster beds were lost; and commercial fishing was suspended.
- The Gulf will be back. Some limited commercial fishing is already underway. Some marshes are already recovering.
- There is a lot more work to be done. Millions of feet of boom have been put out. They will have to be recovered and cleaned or disposed of. Tons of hazardous material will have to be managed. Many more tons of beach sand will have to scooped up and cleaned. Long-term environmental and health monitoring will have to be conducted.
- Washington in particular has a lot left to do: Finish the clean-up; Fix the outdated Oil Spill Act of 1990; and figure out how to better integrate federal, state, local, and private sector assets during a major disaster response—rather than learning on the job.
In my conversations with the men and women involved in the Gulf clean-up, one point stood out from all the rest: imposing a drilling moratorium is a bad idea, and one that has only compounded the current hardships in the Gulf.