20-year veteran of the Coast Guard: “With a spill of this magnitude and complexity, there is no such thing as an effective response.”

There are, and will continue to be, heroic efforts by a wide variety of individuals, including members of the Coast Guard, NOAA, and state, local, and volunteer organizations.  I wish them the best of luck, and wish I could be back in uniform helping out.  But with a spill of this magnitude and complexity, there is no such thing as an effective response.  The Obama administration has clearly mobilized all of the Federal government’s capabilities.  But time and time again, we have learned that our efforts will not measure up to the task at hand.

Today’s guest blogger is Dr. Robert J. Brulle of Drexel University.  I’ve interviewed him many times, and so Climate Progress readers mainly know him as Professor of Sociology & Environmental Science and Affiliate Professor of Public Health, Drexel University.

But before that second career, he was a Commissioned Officer in the Coast Guard for two decades.  Indeed, he has a Bachelor of Science degree from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in Marine Engineering.

So when he talks about the BP-Halliburton oil disaster, people should listen.  Here’s his entire post:

As I watch the slow unfolding of the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, I am reminded of the children’s poem:

Humpty Dumpty Sat on the wall
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall
All the King’s horses, And all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again!

This time, it is our technology that has had a great fall, and while the efforts to put it right may be valiant and well intentioned, we won’t be able to put it back together again.

I haven’t felt this level of despair since Katrina descended over New Orleans.  But this time, it is a slower process that will unfold over weeks, or worse, months.  This is not the first time this has happened, but hopefully, it will be the last.  We first learned about massive oil spills when an oil well blowout occurred in Santa Barbara in 1969.  The second-largest oil spill of all time occurred between June 1979 and March 1980, when the Ixtoc I well blew out in the Gulf of Mexico.  This spill ran for eight months and released around 140 million gallons of oil.  By comparison, the Exxon Valdez (only!) released 10.8 million gallons.

The impacts of extensive oil spills can last for decades.  In the coming days, television news will figure out that there is still oil under the rocks in Prince William Sound, and that the fisheries are still recovering.  The costs to the fishing and recreation industries across the Gulf could turn out to be substantial.  I hope that some miracle technofix can stop the flow of oil quickly, and that we luck out with the winds.  But this is something that we cannot control.

There are, and will continue to be, heroic efforts by a wide variety of individuals, including members of the Coast Guard, NOAA, and state, local, and volunteer organizations.  I wish them the best of luck, and wish I could be back in uniform helping out.  But with a spill of this magnitude and complexity, there is no such thing as an effective response.  The Obama administration has clearly mobilized all of the Federal government’s capabilities.  But time and time again, we have learned that our efforts will not measure up to the task at hand.

Oil spill responses have a very large component of symbolic reassurance to them.  For example, no doubt we will see oily ducks being washed in the coming days. However, the mortality rate of such ducks is extremely high.  So while these salves may make us feel better, they do little to actually deal with the situation.  Focusing on the spill response may be interesting news, but it doesn’t get to the core of the issue of managing risky technologies and the role of government regulation of industrial activities.

There will be considerable ecological and economic damage, and there is basically nothing that can be done to effectively stop that from happening.  A well-coordinated spill response and a lot of good luck can help minimize the worst.  But it appears that, as in the past with the Exxon Valdez, our capabilities will be overwhelmed by the magnitude of the spill.  Ultimately, the most effective way to deal with oil spills is not to have them.

Prevention is the best policy.  But that involves regulations to prevent corporations from taking calculated risks by shaving safety margins to decrease production costs. Rather than striving to achieve the highest levels of safety and pollution prevention, BP continued to resist regulations designed to prevent an accident of this sort.  Specifically, on September 14, 2009, BP wrote:

“While BP is supportive of companies having a system in place to reduce risk, accidents, injuries and spills, we are not supportive of the extensive prescriptive regulations as proposed in this rule.  We believe industry’s current safety and environmental statistics demonstrate that the voluntary programs implemented since the adoption of API RP 75 [a voluntary industry standard] have been and continue to be very successful.

Very successful?   NOT! History has obviously proved wrong their belief in the adequacy of the voluntary standard.

Where was the Minerals Management Service (the regulatory agency governing offshore drilling)?  Remember, this is an agency of the Department of the Interior.  This department was managed in the Bush Administration by Gale Norton, the prot©g© of James Watt, the notorious anti-environmental Secretary of the Interior under Ronald Reagan.  During the Republican administration, the only distinguishing accomplishment of this agency was to get caught in a bribery, sex, and drugs scandal involving collection of oil and gas royalty payments.  We are now tasting the bitter fruit of the past eight years of lax enforcement and allowing industry to set its own “voluntary” standards.  We need a solid investigation of the Minerals Management Service to find out what the agency did and did not do to prevent this spill from happening, and the imposition of strictly enforced regulations to prevent this sort of incident in the future.

No doubt, the industry apologists will go on about how rare these events are, and how they have a good safety record.  But with enormous risks, “good” isn’t good enough.  We cannot afford to jeopardize the entire Gulf ecosystem.  But apparently, that is what we have already done.  We need to get over our technological hubris and stop taking enormous risks with our global ecosystems.

So now what?  I had hoped that we were beyond this sort of event.  But evidently we aren’t.

In the face of global climate change, and now massive catastrophic oil spills, why can’t we figure out that the fossil fuel era needs to come to an end, for our survival, and for the survival of the rest of the species with which we share this planet?  That we have much better alternatives than to continuing to “drill baby drill” – which has now turned into “spill baby spill.”  That we cannot drill our way to energy independence, and that every gallon of gas we burn brings the prospect of further ecological calamities from global warming closer.

We need a real commitment to renewable energy, and to stop investing in the polluting fuels of the past.  The sooner we get on with it, the less chance our children will have to face future disasters.

— Robert J. Brulle

Related Post:

21 Responses to 20-year veteran of the Coast Guard: “With a spill of this magnitude and complexity, there is no such thing as an effective response.”

  1. fj2 says:

    This is a direct first-hand account of one aspect of the major externalities of transportation systems based on cars that run on gasoline.

    For the near future, the externalities would likely not be much different for transportation systems based on cars that run on electricity produced from coal.

  2. Anne says:

    [Brulle] relates: “I haven’t felt this level of despair since Katrina descended over New Orleans. But this time, it is a slower process that will unfold over weeks, or worse, months.”

    I share that sentiment, feeling the impending doom of “the devil’s excrement” as someone has described OIL, heading inevitably towards shore, towards birds nests with young eggs, spawning fish, baby mangrove trees, sensitive grasses, tiny plankton and zooplankton forming the base of the food chain — with us, at the top of it, looming over and dominating all of it. Destroying it. How many people actually feel the pain of that loss in their hearts and souls, recognizing there is no real difference between the Earth, our home, and us humans. We are one, made of the same cloth. When such injury takes place, it disables, debilitates, inflicts hurt and harm, causes long term disabilities. Yet, so many of us feel removed from it: it’s just another image on our TV screen or laptop, just another crisis that will give way to the next crisis within a day or so, gone from our memories… Not to wax too philosophical or make a public display of my own personal melancholy, but I’ve always wondered: why do some of us seem to carry the gene that gives a sh#t about the wonders and marvels of Mother Earth and feel a need to protect and appreciate her, and others, well, just don’t. I also feel very sad about this tragic event — just as Katrina victims started to recover and recoup, started to build a life – another blow to their quality of life hits hard. There really ought to be more outlets for those who feel the grief and loss of this tragedy, but, somehow, it isn’t permitted. I find myself feeling a strong personal longing to gather with like-minded folks to feel the sadness together as we witness the impending poisoning of wetlands and marshes, fish, wonderful birds, and to “hold in the light” as my Quaker Friends would say, all of those amazing southern-dwelling folks who have built lives around harvesting while caring for these precious natural resources. I must ask: if all or at least more of us felt a bigger affinity with nature, wouldn’t there be fewer cases in which we despoiled and destroyed it?

  3. nelson says:

    Right on! These corporations, however, have a way to grease the hands of our democratically elected congresspeople, so the laws are written on their favor. We need instead more participatory democracy, so people’s interest get respected. Fishermen in Louisiana and everywhere else need and want marine species and ecosystems to be protected and think long term. On the other hand, corporate interests are short term. They basically care to “grow” more capital. To that effect they socialize “externalities” (the real cost of production including “unforeseen” accidents) and privatize its profits. An everything is legal! Nobody will go to jail or accept responsibility. Our “best and brightest” captains of industry, finance, and commerce behave like pre-teens.

  4. Steve says:

    If we built ecocities–building cities for people rather than cars, building high, dense, and multi-use, fostering local economies, and having other characteristics described at and in Richard Register’s book Ecocities–then we wouldn’t have oil spills, be at war, etc. We would use far less energy, water, etc., and would be safer, healthier, less obese, have less heart disease, and we would be spending far more of our lives actually being somewhere worth being rather than stuck in traffic. Rolling back sprawl cuts at the very roots of so many of our ills.

    So why, pray tell, don’t we make this priority one?

  5. fj2 says:

    Great sound bite the from 20-year Coast Guard veteran Dr. Robert J. Brulle:

    “We need to get over our technological hubris and stop taking enormous risks with our global ecosystems.”

  6. mike roddy says:

    Thanks, Robert. I especially agree with the last part.

    A phycisist friend just explained to me that hydraulic systems that are hot and under pressure always leak, including nuclear plants. The best solution is to not drill offshore, period.

  7. substanti8 says:

    How many people in the United States are not addicted to oil consumption?  Ten percent?  One percent?  If addicts – by definition – do not care about the consequences of their addiction, then only the tiny minority have the psychological resources to solve the problem.

    This editorial cartoon illustrates the likely result without a successful intervention.

    And to those who comment while remaining addicted to personal cars and airplane flight, why would sober observers have any confidence in your opinion on the matter?

  8. Sasparilla says:

    Wonderful article, said so well.

  9. No longer a spill, this is a fossil fuel hemorrhage.

  10. fj2 says:

    8. substanti8,

    “And to those who comment while addicted to personal cars and airplane flight, why would sober observers have any confidence in your opinion on the matter?”

    Excellent! . . . about addictions quite easy to beat; ultimately, quite rewarding especially in ever-increasing “enlightened” urban environments.

    Kind of amazing how people have gotten used to doing things the hard way and view untried easy ways as impractical, difficult and deprivation.

  11. imaconsumer2 says:

    Excellent post from the former coastguardsman Brulle. In addition we need to pay more attention to the additional contamination BP is adding to the mix. 142,914 gallons of chemical dispersant have been spread on the slick, and more is being added at 3,000 gallons a day underwater at the leak. Riki Ott, toxicologist and fisherwoman from Cordova Alaska was on CNN today talking about the dangers of these chemicals (which were partly responsible for the chronic health problems among responders in Alaska in 1989.

  12. LMA says:

    Anne, I think there are more people feeling pain and loss right now than you realize. Many are volunteering to help set booms to stop the oil from reaching the wildlife in the wetlands, and many are volunteering for the clean up. For those of us who can’t be there to help, we can all do something to reduce our consumption of oil and fossil fuels. Maybe the cause of this tragedy is not so much that we have lost affinity with nature, but rather that we have become so greedy that we no longer even question the true cost of the products we buy.

  13. 9 million gallon oil spill from floating rig last November in Australia:

  14. Andy says:

    “Where was the Minerals Management Service (the regulatory agency governing offshore drilling)?”

    Why they were doing lines of coke and screwing the dames from Shell Oil!

  15. Karen S says:

    Good essay–thank you. While it’s true that there is no such thing as an effective response to a spill of this magnitude (as we’ve learned from past experience) perhaps the lessons it and the Massey coal mine explosion are teaching us will finally stick–as long as we don’t let collective political amnesia wipe it all out in a year, as past experience has also taught. Disingenuous behavior by responsible parties in past incidents has led far too many people to believe that such spills are merely messy and have no long term effects. Exxon’s full recovery proclamations for Prince William Sound are belied nearly everywhere you care to look, but people still believe the smooth rhetoric.

    BP and Massey are right now trying to ride out their respective PR and shareholder confidence crises, with teams of lawyers advising them on legal liabilities. (BP apparently has no external insurance.) What we need to do is force them to acknowledge that the ecological and, yes, humanitarian crises they’ve created and contributed to are far more serious than their internal storms. Corporate behavior as Bob describes demonstrates that they care little beyond their own losses. Loss of the best part of an entire ocean is NOT an acceptable risk in the cost of doing business. If we can’t make them care then we must make them pay.

  16. Seth says:

    So many great points by Bob.
    Regarding BP liability, already there are reports of how BP is trying to adopt the same strategies of Exxon in 1989:
    – require newly hired clean-up workers (including fishermen desperate about work) to sign forms that would limit their rights and future claims (for example, about health ailments). See

    – get local residents to sign away their right to sue for compensation by receiving a $5000 payment now. The Alabama Attorney General is warning residents about this. See

  17. Jeff Huggins says:

    Great post, Robert. Bravo! And thanks!

    I’d just like to underscore several things and then mention another:

    First, I agree with you completely regarding prevention. As you know, we (much of “modern humankind”) often ignore the Precautionary Principle and, in many industries anyhow, current approaches don’t give top priority to prevention. Present paradigms enable, and encourage, big gambles that most people don’t even understand we’re taking.

    For example, here’s a quote from the American Chemical Society’s Position Statement on Global Climate Change:

    “We are, in effect, in the midst of a vast experiment with the Earth’s climate—with uncertain, but likely quite unpleasant, outcomes.”

    Of course, the word ‘uncertain’ should be interpreted correctly here, according to what they mean, which becomes clearer when you read the rest of the Position Statement, which includes this:

    “Recommendation 2a— The U.S. should immediately adopt nationwide goals for rapid and deep reductions in CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions and develop effective economic drivers to achieve these goals.”

    In short, we take a lot of huge and unwise risks these days, and we are going to have an increasing number of Big Broken Humpty Dumpties if we don’t wise up.

    Second, regarding the API, any good standards that are presently “voluntary” should be made mandatory at this point, at the very minimum. It makes no sense to allow an industry that is knowingly misleading the public, and delaying responsible action, regarding such matters as climate change to be trusted to respect “voluntary” standards on any important matters. If an industry wants to enjoy the public’s trust, and to have the privilege of having voluntary standards, it must (of course) demonstrate credibility and integrity, and good intentions, across the board.

    We should tell the API (and ExxonMobil, BP, Chevron, etc.) that they have a choice: If the industry genuinely adopts an honest, scientifically sound posture with respect to addressing climate change, and acts in the public interest on the most important matters, then maybe we’ll allow it to retain some standards on a “voluntary” basis, until it shows that it can’t be trusted (again). If, on the other hand, the industry continues to act irresponsibly with respect to the climate change problem, then the present “voluntary” standards will all be made “mandatory” and (in any case, of course) responsible regulations aimed at addressing the climate change problem itself will be added.

    Although there are many good and caring people within the oil industry, of course—although I wish they were the ones in the Boardrooms and executive suites—nevertheless, the American Public would be foolish, at this point, to trust the API and the oil companies on these important matters. Period. Earlier in my career, I was a chemical engineer, from Berkeley, and worked for Chevron for several years. (I also had offers from Exxon and Shell at the time.) There is no way that I would suggest that we “trust” the industry to be responsible, on its own, regarding these vital matters. It would be entirely foolish for us to do so.

    Finally, if I’m not mistaken (I was there just several days ago), the American Petroleum Institute (API) is headquartered at 1220 L Street NW in Washington DC, a very short walk from the White House, just around the corner from the Associated Press’s Washington bureau, and not very far from the AAAS, the ACS, and the UCS. In my view, it might be very helpful for members of the public to stop by the API and express their views on these matters, responsibly and with civility of course, while in Washington.

    Thanks again for the great post, Robert. And also, thanks for your service in the Coast Guard!

    Be Well,


  18. Leif says:

    Right on Jeff…

    I would like to give a shout to a Leonard Cohen song “Democracy” and a short quote from it.


    “It’s coming through a hole in the air,
    from those nights in Tiananmen Square.
    It’s coming from the feel
    that this ain’t exactly real,
    or it’s real, but it ain’t exactly there.
    From the wars against disorder,
    from the sirens night and day,
    from the fires of the homeless,
    from the ashes of the gay:
    Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.”

  19. substanti8 says:

    Leif, I’ll see your Leonard Cohen and raise you one Steve Forbert:

    The Oil Song  (song player)

    Now down in the Gulf east of Mexico Way
    There’s something gone wrong, so the papers all say
    A Mexican oil well is leaking it’s goo
    They say it’s the worst that things have ever come to

    Yes, it’s gallons of sludge, sixty million and more
    It’s cruising and oozing towards many a shore
    Yes, things have got bad, but they’ll probably get worse
    If you can’t drink the oil, oh, you might, you might die of thirst

    Because it’s oil … it’s oil
    And it’s pouring in the sea
    Oil … oil
    Don’t buy it at the station; you can have it now for free
    Just come on down to the shoreline where the water used to be

    full original lyrics

  20. substanti8 says:

    In today’s Dot Earth (which includes a nod to CP), Charles Wohlforth compares news of the BP catastrophe with his extensive experience with the Exxon Valdez catastrophe.  He offers a pessimistic view of oil spill “cleanup” that is similar to what Robert Brulle wrote:

    “Particulars are different, but the similarities are deeper — even the pace of discoveries and disappointments, the arrival of the wildlife rescuers with their false hopes, the dawning knowledge that this problem cannot be fixed.  And so the next phase isn’t hard to predict, either.  A lot of activity, much of which will do more harm than good.  Outrage, disillusionment, endless litigation.”