The Top Seven Examples Of Federal Idiocy In The Gulf Oil Spill Saga

Before we get started here, some parameters.

First, we are intentionally leaving out President Obama’s twin moratoria on offshore drilling as a separate issue. Note we said “twin moratoria,” because while our readers have undoubtedly heard a good deal about the public federal moratorium on deepwater exploration that a federal judge in New Orleans struck down last week, very little has been said about the de-facto moratorium the administration has placed on drilling in shallow water; since the Deepwater Horizon exploded on April 20, some 90 applications for shallow-water drilling have been made, and precisely zero have been accepted.

More on that in another update.

In this one, we are solely dealing with the response to the Macondo oil spill and not the political and policy responses to it – nor a third category of governmental failure, that being the slack enforcement of federal regulations which allowed BP’s explosion and spill to happen in the first place. And the seven examples of bureaucratic and leadership failures contained herein are merely a sheen atop the water; hundreds more examples populate the murky depths below.

Our oil spill updates at the Hayride have chronicled the many individual bureaucratic failures leading up to what increasingly appears to be one of the best examples of government insufficiency in the face of a crisis in American, if not world, history. Two common threads run through the majority of the tales of woe to follow – a strong preference for rewarding some political constituencies and/or punishing others in lieu of dispassionate governance on one hand, and a refusal or inability to deploy common sense, as successful executives learn to do, when to do so would defy conventions or regulations established for different and inapplicable situations.

It all adds up to a devastating and humiliating experience for the people of the Gulf, one which has taken a population already suspicious of the federal government in the wake of Katrina and largely poisoned them against the ruling class in general – and President Obama in particular. When a Louisiana poll finds by a 50-35 margin that they prefer President Bush’s Katrina response over the one Obama has offered to the Gulf with the oil spill, it indicates the level of disgust prevalent among the affected. It’s unlikely Mississippians or Alabamans feel much differently.

With that, here are our top seven examples of utter and complete stupidity shown by our federal government as this spill has continued.

7. The Jones Act. The refusal of the Obama administration to waive Jones, which requires ships carrying goods from one American port to another to be U.S. flagged, U.S. owned and U.S. crewed, as a response to the spill has been grossly overplayed in the media (and particularly the conservative media). The fact is, outside of six miles Jones doesn’t apply. It doesn’t prevent foreign vessels to operate in the middle of the northern Gulf, where the vast majority of the oil is, and as such it’s nowhere near the Obama administration mistake it has been sold as. In addition, much of the equipment which would have been used by foreign vessels to aid in the Gulf spill turns out to be portable, and as such in many cases that equipment has been brought here to be installed on American ships. The Jones Act has been held out as a reason why foreign skimmers have not been allowed onto the scene to assist in sucking up oil and keeping it away from our shores; in fact, as we will discuss below, Jones isn’t the real culprit.

That said, the Jones Act kerfuffle is a perfect example of something the oil spill saga has made clear; the administration is more interested in politics than governance. Ken Wells, president of the Louisiana Offshore Marine Services Organization, a group representing the very vessels the Act protects, has said that while its effect on the spill response is practically negligible his members have no objection at all to waiving the Act in the case of the Gulf emergency. A preliminary, temporary waiver of Jones by the administration in the event a foreign nation or company might offer help of significance would have done no harm in the long term. It’s an emergency; smart governance will err on the side of less red tape rather than more. As such, the Jones Act belongs on this list even if it’s on the bottom.

6. The Packgen Blowoff By now certainly most of the nation has heard of the warehouse in Maine wherein several miles of oil boom has been sitting idle since April while the manufacturer appears helpless to find a buyer. That’s the story of Packgen, a plastics company which, upon hearing the news of the spill, cranked out production of 15 miles of boom made of woven polypropylene material it uses to construct containers for toxic waste. The company figured it would have little trouble moving the product, and it has a production line capable of cranking out an almost endless supply – and given the extreme shortage of containment boom on the Gulf Coast, which has sparked a running argument among the local officials tasked with keeping oil off their respective shores, it’s incredible that suppliers of boom would be turned down.

Packgen was, though – and when media reports of the company being ignored by the Unified Command started cropping up, the response wasn’t to immediately jump on the new supply of boom and put it to use. Instead, there was quibbling about Packgen’s product quality and the lack of universal connectors on the boom segments – the Unified Command appeared more interested in insulting Packgen than doing business with them. Meanwhile, an independent consultant did an analysis of Packgen boom and proclaimed that it not only met quality standards but exceeded them.

This at a time when Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal was telling anyone who would listen that his state needs a minimum of 5 million feet of boom and had been issued just 800,000 feet.

5. Skimmers Staying Put. As Forrest Gump author Winston Groom, writing in The Weekly Standard, details, only a small percentage of the oil skimmers available around the country have been deployed to handle the worst environmental disaster in American history…

A few weeks ago, at the height of tourist season, as oil began washing up on beaches in Alabama, the Coast Guard announced that the best way to deal with the problem was to let the oil wash ashore and then clean up the beaches once the tide went out. That tactic proved sadly wrong. A story in the June 20 Mobile Press Register was accompanied by photographs of the vast layers of oily goo that had collected on the bottom in the shallows many yards out from the beaches, killing everything it settled on, and ruining swimming and wading for everyone. Apparently the Coast Guard claimed it was easier to clean up the beaches than to fight the oil before it landed because it lacked enough skimmers…

The lack of skimmer vessels becomes more critical each day. All the boom in the world cannot contain an oil spill without something to quickly skim it up. Waves, wind, and current soon push the oil over or under the boom. When that large slick was allowed to enter Mobile Bay, promises were made by BP and the Coast Guard that the mouth and other entrances would be protected by skimmers. Part of the slick went 25 miles north to the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, one of the largest wetlands systems in the nation. There were no skimmers available to deal with it.

According to the Coast Guard there are 400 skimmer vessels working along the affected coast—which, depending on how it’s measured, is somewhere between 500 miles (the linear measure) and 5,000 (if you measure every cove and creek). There are said to be 2,000 skimmers available in the United States. Gulf Coast residents are wondering just what the other 1,600 are doing. Apparently many of them are required by government regulation to remain right where they are in case of emergency.

Groom makes the point that federal regulations require weeks of training and certification courses before anyone is allowed to skim oil. As a result, the fishing fleet rendered useless by the spill is deployed in only dribs and drabs in various capacities; in a bygone age those boats would be out on the water using every means imaginable to soak up or suck up BP’s oil and bring it to market onshore in something akin to a Gold Rush. Try that today, and you’ll get arrested. Meanwhile the oil continues to drift ashore, seemingly as it pleases, and the Unified Command appears powerless to stop it.

4. The Vacuum Barge Affair One common complaint on the Left, made of BP and other oil companies, is that since the Ixtoc spill in the southern Gulf in 1979 there have been virtually no advancements in remediation technology; those making the complaint are incredulous that boom, skimmers, chemical dispersant and burning are the chief means of handling a spill just like they were then. Where are the miraculous new technologies put in place to fix the spill, they ask?

The federal government has created a program to allow for the tinkerers, entrepreneurs, engineers and idea men out there to submit ideas and proposals for cleaning up the spill. The Coast Guard is running it out of its Acquisition Directorate. Here’s an excerpt from the June 4 release establishing the program…

The U.S. Coast Guard Acquisition Directorate is supporting the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill response in a variety of ways. The Acquisition Directorate’s Research, Development, Test and Evaluation (RDT&E) Program and its Research and Development Center (RDC) have been providing onsite support in the form of guidance on the usage and effectiveness of current oil spill response technologies as well as serving as part of the review team screening and evaluating potential response solutions from vendors.

The RDC is executing the Interagency Alternative Technology Assessment Program (IATAP) workgroup in collaboration with interagency partners and has issued a Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) for vendors. The BAA was published on June 4 at www.fbo.gov and calls for the submission of white papers on vendor-proposed technology solutions.

If your eyes didn’t glaze over reading those two paragraphs, read the whole release and see if you can get through it without getting a migraine.

This is the link you’re directed to if you’d like to put a proposal together, and it’s even worse. Pure bureaucratese. It’s as though they’re going out of their way to keep regular folks with good ideas – like Packgen, for example – from contributing to the spill.

Which brings us to one relatively creative idea to deal with the oil, and what happened when it was tried.

The federal government didn’t come up with the idea to put vacuum trucks on shallow-draft barges and send them into Louisiana’s marshes – Louisiana came up with that idea and put it to use on its own. The video coming back from the vacuum barge project showed it to be a painstaking process which actually impacted the oil, if very slowly. But while Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal made plans to greatly expand the vacuum barge program, he found himself enraged when Coast Guard bureaucrats descended on his barges and reeled them into port. And why? Because they weren’t satisfied that the barges were properly equipped with life vests and fire extinguishers. An entire day was lost when those barges were grounded so that the paper-pushers could be satisfied.

Groom asks the question best:

If the Coast Guard was so worried about safety, why not simply take a big pile of life preservers and fire extinguishers out to these craft and hand them around, so that the skimmers could keep at their essential job?

3. Dredging Feet On Sand-Berms The incident which has generated the largest amount of publicity in Louisiana to date, and the loudest protests from Gov. Bobby Jindal and Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser, has been the performance of the federal government in approving the plan to build sand berms around Louisiana’s barrier islands in an effort to keep oil out of the state’s marshes. The plan was presented to the federal government less than two weeks after the spill began, and it took the feds over a month to approve only a limited number of the 24 specific projects called for in the plan.

Then, when the state began putting the plan into action – on its own, since the feds were slow to move – and began dredging to construct a barrier island in the Chandeleur chain, the Department of the Interior put the clamps on it because it said the borrow pit that Louisiana’s contractor was drawing sand from was too close to land and might impact fish and birds, and also because it questioned whether taking sand from the area in question might make the Chandeleurs unstable. Louisiana Coastal Protection and Recovery Authority chair Garrett Graves noted that the pit in question was included in the federal permit the state obtained as a valid area to dredge in; Graves also noted that the federal Department of Fish and Wildlife has jurisdiction over the island chain, and during its time in charge the Chandeleurs have gone from a populated island chain with fishing villages to a disappearing land mass – which lends an air of comedy to sudden expressions of concern when Louisiana attempts to use the islands as a base from which to prevent oil from coming inland.

2. Fire Boom? What Fire Boom? Of course, with all the difficulty purveyors of novel ideas to fight the spill are encountering from the feds in getting approval to implement them, one is tempted to ask where the government’s plan is, if it doesn’t like anyone else’s.

It turns out that the feds do have a plan. They’ve had one for some time. They just didn’t follow it. Ben Raines of the Mobile Register had the story in early May:

The “In-Situ Burn” plan produced by federal agencies in 1994 calls for responding to a major oil spill in the Gulf with the immediate use of fire booms.

But in order to conduct a successful test burn eight days after the Deepwater Horizon well began releasing massive amounts of oil into the Gulf, officials had to purchase one from a company in Illinois.

When federal officials called, Elastec/American Marine, shipped the only boom it had in stock, Jeff Bohleber, chief financial officer for Elastec, said today.

At federal officials’ behest, the company began calling customers in other countries and asking if the U.S. government could borrow their fire booms for a few days, he said.

A single fire boom being towed by two boats can burn up to 1,800 barrels of oil an hour, Bohleber said. That translates to 75,000 gallons an hour, raising the possibility that the spill could have been contained at the accident scene 100 miles from shore.

“They said this was the tool of last resort. No, this is absolutely the asset of first use. Get in there and start burning oil before the spill gets out of hand,” Bohleber said. “If they had six or seven of these systems in place when this happened and got out there and started burning, it would have significantly lessened the amount of oil that got loose.”

Whether fire boom and in situ burning was the best possible idea or not is debatable. Good weather and favorable seas are required to make it an effective technique, and while those conditions prevailed for some eight days after the spill began there was a week or so afterward when it would have been difficult to burn off the oil.

But that’s not the point. The point is that the federal government was caught with its pants down, didn’t have a supply of the equipment necessary to implement a plan it’s had in place for 16 years and did an entirely poor job of attempting to remedy the situation before the oil slick spread beyond anything the feds could control.

Had an in situ burn been available and implemented according to the 1994 plan, the current controversy about chemical dispersants and invading oil could well have been minimized if not made moot. But even if it hadn’t, the feds look particularly unqualified to lead the response or even to judge the efforts of locals or private individuals when they had a plan and not only didn’t follow it but didn’t even have the equipment necessary to do so. With so basic a failure at the outset, is it any surprise that this response has become so monumental a Charlie Foxtrot?

1. 15 Parts Per Million The worst of all, though, isn’t that the government didn’t have the ability to follow its own plan. In fact, in situ burning is actually being done at present, as BP is flaring 10,000 barrels of oil a day from the Q4000 as it captures oil coming up from the broken well. Burning oil is unproven as a method for handling large-scale spills in any event. It’s also less than optimal from an environmental standpoint, and it’s also a massive waste; burning 10,000 barrels a day at $75 per barrel at market prices constitutes three-quarters of a million dollars of needless losses at a time when the company suffering them has market analysts questioning its solvency.

On the other hand, a spill much larger than the Macondo spill happened off the coast of Saudi Arabia in 1993, and within six months 85 percent of the oil in the spill was recovered. Nick Pozzi, the engineer working for Saudi Aramco who was given carte blanche to come up with a solution, simply parked a few supertankers at the spill site and had them sucking oil and water in massive quantities until the crisis was over. Pozzi’s plan worked so well that the Saudis were actually able to put a lid on the whole affair – it never got any publicity despite the fact that outside of the Gulf War spills deliberately caused by Saddam Hussein Pozzi claims it was the largest in world history – and Saudi Aramco is actually disputing that it ever happened.

But former Shell CEO John Hofmeister is anything but a rube, and when Hofmeister is making the rounds of cable news shows and radio talk programs insisting that using supertankers with huge siphons are the answer, with Pozzi’s experience as evidence, it’s obvious that Aramco’s denials become a bit shaky.

And a Taiwanese vessel with a Liberian flag currently sitting in the harbor in Norfolk, VA has awaited an opportunity to follow up on Pozzi’s experience for a month – and only on Friday was summoned to the scene. The A-Whale is billed as the largest open-water oil skimmer in existence, and the 1,100-foot vessel can process 500,000 barrels of oil a day. – which compares to a current figure of 600,000 barrels in the first 66 days since the Gulf spill.

The A-Whale is fundamentally similar in its technology to the Dutch oil skimmers the government initially rejected despite an offer of help. This is where the overplaying of the Jones Act as an impediment to cleaning up the spill has been so egregious – it’s not the Jones Act which is prevented the use of this technology, it’s the EPA.

Just as the federal government held off on Louisiana’s attempts to build sand berms to avert an environmental disaster because the EPA had to perform an environmental study – as though any negative effects of a sand berm could possibly be worse than oil getting into the marshes – EPA regulations on the discharge of oil into the water are preventing the collection of oil from the water on an effective scale.

The A-Whale, Pozzi’s tanker plan and the Dutch skimmers all operate the same way – oil is sucked into large tanks aboard skimmer vessels, it is separated from sea water aboard ship (usually by gravity, since water is heavier and sinks to the bottom) and then the water is pumped out so as to make room to collect more oil. Current skimming efforts which have yielded such puny results don’t involve discharging water, and as such bring in no more than 10 to 15 percent oil when they come ashore.

Why the inefficiency, and why not use the discharge method? Because EPA rules say that it’s illegal to discharge water containing anything in quantities enough to leave a sheen – or 15 parts per million.

The Dutch, to put it mildly, are not impressed with the EPA. Radio Netherlands has an interview with the oddly-named Wierd Koops, who heads Spill Response Group Holland, the Dutch government organization which handles spills:

Wierd Koops thinks the US approach is nonsense, because otherwise you would have to store the surplus seawater in the tanks as well.

“We say no, you have to get as much oil as possible into the storage tanks and as little water as possible. So we pump the water, which contains drops of oil, back overboard.”

US regulations are contradictory, Mr Knoops stresses. Pumping water back into the sea with oil residue is not allowed. But you are allowed to combat the spill with chemicals so that the oil dissolves in the seawater. In both cases, the dissolved oil is naturally broken down quite quickly.

It is possible the Americans will opt for the Dutch method as the damage the oil spill could cause to the mud flats and salt marshes along the coast is much worse, warns Wetland expert Hans Revier.

“You have to make sure you clear up the oil at sea. As soon as the oil reaches the mud flats and salt marshes, it is too late. The only thing you can do then is dig it up. But then the solution is worse than the problem.”

There is some evidence that the idiocy of the EPA’s discharge rule is being backed down a bit, but in applying rules written to govern the adding of oil to water to efforts to remove it we have an example of criminal incompetence that calls into question the EPA’s insistence in the first place – and certainly the fitness of EPA administrator Lisa Jackson and environmental tsarina Carol Browner to hold their positions. The water discharge regulation issue is the number one impediment to cleaning up the spill, and it’s also the number one example of regulatory excess and stupidity we’ve ever seen.

Without question, BP is ultimately at fault for the damage from its spill. But federal incompetence has been like pouring gasoline on a fire, and federal involvement has served to make this spill worse at nearly every level. The seven examples of that incompetence listed above are anything but a comprehensive list; in fact there are far more, and over time the unreported bureaucratic fiascoes might surpass some of those on our hit parade.

In the meantime, the world marvels at the failure of an American government it trusts to lead to employ common sense and basic competence in fighting the spill. The implications aren’t positive.

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