The Oil Spill: Will The Government Do Better?

Don’t let the title of the post mislead.  This is not a comprehensive analysis.  Rather my thread here returns (mostly) to one theme of my post last week.  I wrote about the work of my friend Tim Crone and his colleagues on determining the quantity of oil discharging from Deepwater Horizon.  A point they had made is that knowing how much oil is discharging is critical to scaling a response and to assessing the efficacy of  BP’s attempts to stop the flow.  So there is good reason to care and clearly BP did not.

As I drive to work, I often listen to Dave Ross on KIRO 97.3.  Dave is “the crusader for common sense”; he used to promote “drive-by wisdom for the masses, one listener at the time” but maybe that had gang connotations?  Much of this week’s crusade has been analysis and opinion concerning  the outcry from across the political spectrum that government is not doing its job and needs to seize control of the situation from BP.   The irony of small government, tea party folk calling for (magically) right-sized government is no more than a call for a government that can do everything by not being there:  less is more after all.   (On a lighter note, I really enjoyed a replay of a tirade from a nationally syndicated, liberal commentator worrying about the effect of the oil on coastal communities like Atlanta, which by my measure is a good 235 miles from the nearest coast.)   A critical point Ross covered was the reality that US law assigns responsibility for handling spills to those that create them, a risk most often pooled and managed through hiring response contractors.  I know quite a bit about this…our department operates a 3000-ton research vessel and we retain the services of a response contractor, just as does BP.   UW at most can only spill 3000 tons (and that is if we were carrying nothing else!) so the responders we contract with have the capacity to do something meaningful, anywhere on the globe.  The failing is that BP was not required to have a response capability that scaled to their ability to spill prodigious quantities of oil.

So here we are:  BP probably must remain at the center of stemming the flow unless the government wants to seize the well and hand it over to say Exxon/Mobil (maybe there is a role here for application of maritime salvage law?)  But as to the environmental consequences, BP isn’t trusted because it has downplayed the magnitude of the spill.  They (including their response contractor) don’t have adequate infrastructure to respond in a meaningful way.  And so it becomes the government’s operational problem, even if BP eventually reimburses all costs.  Will the government do better?

There is not a FEMA for oil spills.  If there were, instead of Obama taking heat, it would be deflected to the people filling the Chertoff/Brown roles during Katrina.  Certainly evident is that MMS is the ocean floor equivalent of the USFS and BLM, enough said.  That leaves USGS and NOAA.

USGS is primarily an agency of scientists.  Marcia McNutt, Director of USGS (and a graduate school classmate of mine), is leading a governmental “Flow Rate Technical Group” but it seems focussed on providing “a number” rather than both “a number” and deployable technologies to measure how that number is changing through time and where the oil is in space.  And maybe they don’t even care about the number:

“Dr. McNutt, who is the chair of the FRTG, … emphasized that since day one, the Administration’s deployments of resources and tactics in response to the BP oil spill have been based on a worst-case, catastrophic scenario, and have not been contained by flow rate estimates.”

(An aside: I’ll leave to politically-attuned folk an analysis of the government membership on FRTG and its relevance to solving versus obfuscating…)

If there is a FEMA for oil spills, it is the NOAA Emergency Response Division of the Office of Response and Restoration (located nearby to me in the NOAA complex at Sand Point in Seattle).  A story in Crosscut describes their role in the Deepwater Horizon response.  What caught my eye was the portion of the story concerning how much oil.  And specifically this excerpt from the several paragraphs on this topic:

“At some point, the actual volume doesn’t matter,” [Helton] says. “We don’t know the number, and if we did there is nothing we would do any differently.”

So is the government any different than BP?   The essence: “we’ve got a big problem and we are doing everything we can to solve it, but we won’t be bothered with actually figuring out how big the problem is”.  I am having a great deal of difficulty wrapping myself around this kind of thinking.

For my taste, way too much is being made of this being Obama’s Katrina, for a vast majority of the dialog is highly partisan gamesmanship and nothing to do with how the lessons of the Katrina response bear on the present situation or what I hope is a real difference between God and BP.  An outcome of Katrina, not surprisingly, was a thorough review of lessons learned for FEMA.  A 218-page report was issued by the Inspector General of Homeland Security.  In it the IG wrote: [The government] “received widespread criticism for a slow and ineffective response” …”much of the criticism is warranted.”   One of the criticisms is that it took three days for FEMA to grasp the magnitude of the [disaster], hobbling adequate response.  Oh my, the lesson has not been learned.

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