Calling the shots in the oil disaster response

Two experts argue the Federal Government needs to take command

Whoever is running the disaster response is going to have limited success and what appear to be very visible failures (see Will eco-disasters destroy Obama’s legacy? and 20-year veteran of the Coast Guard: “With a spill of this magnitude and complexity, there is no such thing as an effective response.”)

The St. Petersburg Times argues, “Federal takeover of spill work isn’t the answer.”  But CAP’s Tom Kenworthy and Brad Johnson make a compelling case below that it is.  What do you think?

There are obvious limits to how much control the federal government can exert over the frantic and so far hapless effort to stem the catastrophic oil eruption that threatens the entire Gulf of Mexico with ecological devastation. As Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen said Monday, the government does not have the equipment or technical expertise to simply shove aside BP and its industry partners a month after the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig off the coast of Louisiana. “To push BP out of the way, it would raise the question, to replace them with what?” Allen said.

The Obama administration’s embattled and frustrated Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who on Sunday had threatened to do the pushing, recognized the sobering reality 24 hours later. “This administration has done everything we can possibly do to make sure that we push BP to stop the spill and to contain the impact,” Salazar said. “We have also been very clear that there are areas where BP and the private sector are the ones who must continue to lead the efforts with government oversight, such as the deployment of private sector technology 5,000 feet below the ocean’s surface to kill the well.”

But if government has little choice but to keep the perpetrator on the job at the immediate crime scene, it does have a choice when it comes to operations beyond the urgent task of quelling the erupting well. BP will necessarily remain in charge of plugging the hole; but the federal and state governments in the gulf must take greater charge of containing the onshore ecological impacts.

This requires a greater mobilization than exists today, and Washington needs to send the message that it is in full command of the disaster response with the following actions:

  • One highly visible leader at the White House should lead the command and coordination at the cabinet level between the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of the Interior, the Department of Commerce, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Department of Energy, the EPA, the Department of Justice, the White House Office of Energy and Climate Policy, the White House Office of Science and Technology, and the Department of Defense. Two excellent choices for this role would be Vice President Joe Biden or energy advisor Carol Browner. This leader should also work directly with the affected states’ governors.
  • The Federal Emergency Management Agency should be in charge of onshore coastal recovery and disaster response, assisted by the Army Corps of Engineers. The National Guard should be fully deployed under the control of each state’s governor, with Army units if necessary. The EPA, NOAA, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should exercise relevant oversight. And any environmental and disaster response contractors working for BP should instead work directly for the federal government.
  • The federal government should clearly be in charge of surface-water recovery and maritime disaster response. The Vessels of Opportunity and other maritime contractors now working for BP should be under contract with the federal government, including research vessels. The Coast Guard with the EPA, NOAA, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service oversight should manage dispersant use for cleanup.
  • The Environmental Protection Agency should immediately bar BP from new federal contracts“”including drilling in federally controlled oil fields””because of its repeated environmental crimes.
  • The State Department should continue to reach out to other nations that have experience with disastrous oil spills to see if assistance and ideas are available. This should be a government-to-government effort, not one undertaken by private companies.
  • Claims for damages and lost revenues should be put under the authority of the U.S. Coast Guard National Pollution Funds Center. The scope of this disaster far exceeds the NPFC’s traditional resources, and other federal, state, and local claims processing resources must therefore be brought to bear, particularly from the Coast Guard’s sister agency FEMA.
  • The EPA, the Justice Department, the Internal Revenue Service, and other law enforcement branches of the federal, state, and local government should exercise subpoena authority to seize or monitor relevant communications and data collection, and assets if necessary.
  • The EPA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention should begin a health-monitoring program for the most at risk populations so there is a baseline from which to measure health complications from the spill and cleanup.
  • Federal agencies, not BP, should handle spill response hotlines for volunteers, technology ideas, affected wildlife, and others. Full call records need to be logged with incident reports and technology ideas presented publicly on dynamic websites.

BP is required as the responsible party for this apocalyptic disaster to provide full and instant funding for the response by the federal, state, and local governments and their contractors. BP personnel and equipment being used for disaster response in the Gulf should be put under governmental control during the crisis.

BP’s funding should come in the form of an escrow account that draws on BP’s $100 billion in capital reserves, without limit. The federal government should require BP to use its first quarter 2010 profits””$5 billion“”to establish the escrow account. Congress needs to pass the Big Oil Liability Bailout Prevention Act, S. 3305, to lift the liability limit to $10 billion.

The Center for American Progress also supports a full moratorium on new leases or new drilling for all companies until the commission issues its report and recommendations….

Congress and the administration must meanwhile take further steps to end our dependence on big oil. The administration should beef up federal research and development efforts into how to prevent oil spills and better contain them if they occur. The federal government should establish additional protection for continental shelf areas beyond just the three miles states can control. Congress should cut tax loopholes and other handouts to big oil companies, which would save $45 billion over 10 years””money that can be spent on investing in a clean energy economy instead. And clean energy legislation that caps the oil and coal pollution that is heating the atmosphere and acidifying the oceans is long overdue.

This is a repost by Tom Kenworthy, Senior Fellow, and Brad Johnson, a Researcher and Blogger at the Center for American Progress.

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12 Responses to Calling the shots in the oil disaster response

  1. Leif says:

    Yes, yes, yes,……add infinitum. Take over, they pay.

    It is clear that the Fossil fuel industry has ZERO respect for EARTH’S life support systems and by extension Humanity survivability and sustainability.

    BP management made a judgment call to maximize profits above safety. Had it worked out shareholders and CEOs would have been the richer at our expense. They blew it. They pay. If the shareholders get burned, well take it up with the Board of Directors.

  2. daniel smith says:

    All of this sounds entirely sensible regarding containment and cleanup, but there is another question, namely the specific nature of “oversight” of efforts to cap the well. Regardless of whether BP has the machinery or not, who, exactly, is making the final decisions on what to do at the site? There seems to me to be a gaping hole of news and editorial coverage on this. Excuse the redundancy, but here, below, is something I posted on this site yesterday. Am I missing something, or what? Could someone please explain?

    – – –

    On the question of taking charge of the “spill,” I just read in the Times about how the CEO of BP is reviewing tests before deciding on whether to proceed with the top-kill, which has the potential to make things worse if it fails to plug the “leak.” That this can be said without irony is astounding. Some suit with an MBA and a few decades of predatory-capitalist behavior under his belt is weighing the data before HE decides what to do about the fate of the Gulf of Mexico? Note that this is not a question of who has the resources to do the work, but rather about who makes the call on what to do next. BP may have an advisory and a technical role to play, but they have absolutely no business making such decisions. If this is not a matter of “homeland security” then what is? And is not the President supposed to be in charge of such things in times of crisis? Between this and the sham of a financial regulation bill about to become law (read Simon Johnson on this, at baseline scenario), it seems pretty clear that the banks and the oil companies are running the show. I guess things can always get worse, but it’s becoming harder and harder to see how.

  3. Daniel Ives says:

    I agree with Tom and Brad. BP should be in charge of plugging the well with government oversight, and the federal government should manage the disaster response on BP’s dime. The government should mobilize every resource available to them to mitigate the oil impact on the Gulf ecosystems. Don’t hold back anywhere. Have Congress up the liability limit and then respond to the disaster as though money isn’t an issue. What’s BP going to do? Complain that we’re doing too much to mitigate their mess and spending too much of their money? Although considering some of the incredibly stupid things their CEO has said recently, I wouldn’t rule it out.

  4. richard pauli says:

    As the inevitable destabilization of climate and oceans continue to unfold this very question will be asked again and again. Just how much civil government do we want to retain? And what will be the new role of government?

    The battle seems to be between a dis-organized populace seeking survival and a corporate entity in rapacious plunder. Unlike a terrorist act – which is intentional – this is systemic and may not be intentional – but is certainly inevitable and far more damaging. BP and all other carbon fuel industries seem incapable of civil behavior. I have not seen an authentic demonstration of care – just feeding fuel to a hungry energy market. I see a power struggle with the federal government which undoubtedly will be repeated in the future.

    When the carbon fuel industry continues the goal of restoring business-as-usual – it only accelerates AGW doom.

    Prudent leadership would be to nationalize all carbon fuel industries – it will probably never happen – but it should be spoken of openly.

  5. paulm says:

    Have to agree…there is no easy fix for this. This might bleed for the forseeable future.

    The whole region including other areas like US E coast and the Caribbean will probably be affected.

    And this is only one well. Think of all the other marginal deep wells and the Russian roulette being played with hurricanes down there.

    Think of all the other deep wells off continental coasts…
    Black Goo Syndrome.

  6. mike roddy says:

    BP is going to come out fine on this proposal, actually. They get to take the credit if their “top kill” works, while government managed mitigation and cleanup, by all accounts, is not likely to be very successful. The oil binds with the rich Gulf coastline flora, and the ocean keeps upchucking more of it.

    The key is going to be getting BP to pay for the cleanup, in full, and not just the boom rental costs and the paychecks of the people collecting the muck on shorelines. Cleanup cost definition should include losses of livelihood calculated as opportunity costs, interest, and ecosystem services damage.

    Exxon, after all, made similar promises to pay in 1989. Get BP’s money before they send out their fleet of attorneys and lobbyists. We cannot trust anything they say, based on their recent public announcements (“The Gulf is a very big ocean”, etc). If BP avoids payment, we are going to look like a hopelessly corrupt banana republic.

    The Republicans have obviously taken the position of keeping the liability limit at $75 million, a ludicrous and obviously slimy position. Democrats need to use this as a banner issue in the upcoming elections. If they don’t, they are cowards, and deserve to lose.

  7. fj2 says:

    Excellent, excellent, excellent post! Must be broadly disseminated.

    If major news media do not pick this up there is something seriously wrong with them and they are dangerously undermining the responsive governance of this country, the checks and balances, the delivery of vital information to its citizens.

    The New York Times had something but on a much less comprehensive scale.

    “It is our view that accurate, continuously updated measurements are not only possible, but absolutely essential if we are to respond effectively to this and future disasters.”

    Ian R. MacDonald is a professor of oceanography at Florida University.

    John Amos is the president of SkyTruth, which uses satellite images to monitor environmental problems.

    Timothy Crone is a research scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

    Steve Wereley is a professor of mechanical engineering at Purdue University.

  8. Michael Tucker says:

    Yes the federal government should be in charge of the disaster response and this is a good outline but it does raise some questions. Not big questions but questions like: FEMA works well when clear protocols are defined but, since no one knows how to clean crude from an estuary, are they really the best agency to put in charge?

    Yes, we need to extract the FULL COST of this disaster from BP. The entire incident needs to be investigated and criminal wrongdoing needs to be punished. BP should be stopped NOW from drilling any new holes IN ANY LAND under the control of the US.

    The President should also continue the ban on offshore drilling for all oil companies. The President should hammer home the need to expand the liability limit on oil companies and EXACTLY WHO IN CONGRESS OPPOSES THAT.

  9. fj2 says:

    Lester R. Brown speaks of the “sandwich model” to effect social change that includes a broad grass-roots movement along with a sympathetic leader who acts as a facilitator.

    This is so important. But, key will be the rapid transition to state of governance is a state of war-like urgency: the accelerating environmental crisis is now severe enough to warrant this.

  10. Doug Bostrom says:

    Wellhead appears to be gushing again this morning.

    Even the smallest flow from the well will carry away whatever mud is trying to sit on top of the column, changing the mass balance.

    Not an easy fix.

  11. lizardo says:

    Re comment about BP exec making decisions: It was actually Adm Thad Allen I read who gave the final go ahead on the top kill after tests all yesterday morning.

    Meanwhile LA Times did a story 5/21 about the think tank/war room/apollo 13 problem solving team which is at BP HQ in Houston but not limited to them. The article over emphasizes in a way the outside the box thinking (no pun intended) but therefore doesn’t explain who is there as well who knows about dealing with blown out wells offshore.

    So I think a lot of people actually were involved in this decision.,0,1132600,full.story

    However, that’s not to say BP hasn’t been slow and that there’s plenty of blame to go around about why all this equipment wasn’t standing by idle from the get go,

    I have read a lot in the media about how gov should take over, but agreed, no details as here. Excellent post

  12. Felix Kramer says:

    One thing I haven’t sen mentioned is for the federal government, in partnership with many other public nnd private organiztions, to coordinate, at the approprite time, and without slowing efforts already under way, a mechanism to bring and support volunteer citizens who can get to the Gulf Coast area to help repair the still incalculable damage to our coast and its inhabitants.

    — Felix Kramer, Founder, The California Cars Initiative