Monday, August 30, 2010

Opinion: Resourcing Oil Spill Response: The School of Experience

“We know nothing of what will happen in the future, but by the analogy of experience.”
– Abraham Lincoln, Springfield, Illinois, 1839

By Clay Maitland

A number of panels, commissions and committees are starting the process of examining the lessons learned from the precedent-shattering Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

Adequacy of funding is one problem. Sufficiency and design of equipment is another.

As an American official recently observed “The hard decisions are always about resources.” Since the wreck of the Torrey Canyon in 1967, governments, industry and the public have struggled to prepare for, and cope with, “a discharge, or threat of discharge, of oil or a hazardous substance from a vessel, offshore facility, or onshore facility,” as Rear Admiral Brian Salerno of the US Coast Guard puts it.

The European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA), and national oil spill and environmental protection departments, have potential resourcing problems, similar to those now being seen in the United States. The cost of response, cleanup and remediation is going up, at the same time that fiscal reform has become a number one priority. In Europe, this is called the “Greece effect.” While the continuous flow of oil from the Macondo well has been termed a “black swan” event, without precedent in the history of oil spills, the record tells a somewhat different story. Statistically, there have been 44 notable blowouts of offshore wells, resulting in 79 deaths, with one event in 1979 causing massive pollution. In the 55-year period from 1955-2010, the mean time between such blowouts was about 15 months.

Within the Gulf of Mexico, in the 37-year period from 1964-2001, 10 offshore blowouts, or 23 percent of those that occurred world-wide, took place. These resulted in 27 deaths, or 34 percent of those suffered globally. In one such event, involving the Sedco 135F rig, a spill of between 455 to 480 thousand tons of oil. By comparison, from 1955 to 2010 in the United Kingdom-North Sea sector, two blowouts took place, one in 1977 on a fixed installation, and one in 1988 on a semi-submersible, with one fatality.

In February, two months before the Gulf of Mexico disaster, the Obama administration proposed a three percent cut in the Coast Guard’s budget, reducing it to about $10 billion. With the benefit of experience, it seems that the timing of this proposal was unfortunate.

In attempting to contain the flow of oil from the stricken well, the Coast Guard, BP, other US agencies, and state and local authorities, have deployed inflatable containment booms, absorbent booms and other floating obstructions, skimmer boats, barges, tugs, remotely operated vehicles, modified buoy tenders and specialized ships like the A Whale and Helix Producer. Because every spill has its own special features, a particular type of equipment may be found to be more effective in some cases than it is in others.

Nineteen Coast Guard cutters and two-dozen aircraft of various types are reportedly in use as well.

The Coast Guard has on duty a total of about 42,000 active servicemen and women, plus 7,500 reservists; by early July, nearly 3,000 people – mostly reservists – were present at or near the oil spill area. Under present policy, reservists can serve only two 60-day tours of duty, at most, and then can’t be recalled for two years. During the current emergency, to plug the staffing gap, members of the Coast Guard Auxiliary have been asked to volunteer for at least 30 days. A call has also gone out for Coast Guard civilian employees to go to the Gulf for one month of twelve-hour days.

The withdrawal of Coast Guard personnel and equipment from law enforcement, search and rescue, homeland security, environmental protection and safety at sea duties elsewhere, while understandable in an emergency, has raised the awareness of Congress that the response effort in the Gulf comes at a cost, in terms of mission readiness and efficient use of resources. For example, the transfer of equipment and ships to the oil spill zone has meant the removal, from “normal” assignment, of nearly half of the Coast Guard’s buoy tender fleet, because these vessels are useful for skimming oil. This has meant a cutback in maintaining aids to navigation. Other cutters, aircraft and personnel have been subtracted from drug and migrant interdiction in the Caribbean.

In spite of this, the resource-stretched Coast Guard has for some reason not been exempted, unlike the other four uniformed services, from the proposed federal budget spending freeze.

A thorough assessment of the effectiveness of this process, and whether adequate resources are being devoted to response and remediation, is necessary. This is not because a similar blowout may be likely or conceivable, in other parts of the United States or elsewhere. It is because a variety of issues, including the effectiveness of the measures taken and resources required for future use must be planned for in light of “battlefield” experience.

At NAMEPA, we are concerned about these “lessons learned;” the management of risk, in terms of oil spill prevention, means among other things that the right measures be taken to avoid disaster in the first place. Prevention and remediation go hand in hand. Planning therefore begins before the spill, to avoid it and to have a seamless response process in place. What was done after April 20, why and how the process worked, and what needs rethinking, will be studied and debated for some years to come.

New York admiralty lawyer Clay Maitland is a managing partner of International Registries, Inc., as well as the founding chairman of the North American Marine Environment Protection Association (NAMEPA), since 2007. Mr. Maitland will be providing closing comments at the GreenPacific conference ( September 21-22, 2010 in Seattle, Washington.