Berm notice: Oil Spill Commission staff finds Jindal’s sand piles were “Underwhelmingly Effective, Overwhelmingly Expensive”

berm E-4, July 8

Back in June, I warned that Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-LA) was demagoguing a sand barrier ‘solution’ that probably won’t help, will take many months, use up valuable resources, vanish in the first storm “” and many scientists think will make things worse.  As one Coastal geologist explained: “I have yet to speak to a scientist who thinks the project will be effective.”

By July, surprise, surprise, Jindal’s “barrier islands” were washing away [see photo above].  Now the staff of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling offers its least surprising finding in a white paper, “The Story of the Louisiana Berms Project“:

The Commission staff can comfortably conclude that the decision to green-light the underwhelmingly effective, overwhelmingly expensive Louisiana berms project was flawed


The next sentence is “But whether it was flawed at the time, or only flawed in retrospect, with the benefit of hindsight, is not a question this paper seeks to answer.”  That may be fine for a non-partisan commission, but I had scientists emailing me in June what a bad idea this is.  And when I asked people to e-mail me if they thought it was a good idea, there were no replies.

Dr. Robert Young, “a professor of coastal geology and director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University,” wrote two pieces in June “” a NYT op-ed, “A Sand Trap in the Gulf” and a longer piece for Yale e360, “Under Pressure to Block Oil, A Rush To Dubious Projects” (reposted on CP), asserting:

The state of Louisiana has a wealth of fine coastal scientists who have been working on the coastal restoration of the Louisiana delta region for decades. Yet those who I have spoken with have indicated that they have not been consulted on the project. I have yet to speak to a scientist who thinks the project will be effective.

In the end, we have a project that is incredibly expensive. There has been little scientific review. It is questionable if the proposed berm will prevent oil from entering the wetlands it is designed to protect. The structure will be very short-lived. And there are many potential negative impacts of this structure on the coastal environment that have not been evaluated. Coastal dredging and filling can cause significant damage to marine organisms and local ecosystems as massive amounts of sand are dug up in one location and then deposited on the sea floor in another spot. In addition, building a 45-mile sand berm could alter tidal currents and lead to the erosion of natural barrier islands that protect the Louisiana coast from hurricanes.

The Spill Commission staff report does make very clear that it was intense political pressure by Gov. Bobby Jindal that forced everyone else to go along, however reluctantly.  In theory you can try to fault the Army Corps of Engineers and the National Incident Command, led by Commander Admiral Thad Allen.

But in reality, the fault is entirely Jindal’s.  The Governor of the state that was most affected by this worst oil spill in US history made clear he was committed to demagoguing this counterproductive strategy, and that if it was not put into place, he would spend the rest of his life shouting to anybody in the media that failure to adopt his solution was the reason why Louisiana coasts were harmed.

The report is worth reading by anybody who thinks the oil spill somehow turn Bobby Jindal into Rudy Giuliani.

Here are some of the Report’s conclusions:

A. The Louisiana berms were not a success.

With the benefit of hindsight, the evidence available to the Commission staff suggests the Louisiana berms were not an effective spill response measure. In his book Leadership and Crisis, Governor Jindal claims that berms “proved to be one of the most effective protection measures . . . . Indeed, time and time again, [berms] stopped the oil that got past the skimmers and boom.” Similarly, appearing recently on Meet the Press, Governor Jindal argued “[t]he sand berms were a great success.” We disagree. From a long-term coastal restoration perspective, the berms may indeed be a “significant step forward,” as Governor Jindal has claimed, but they were not successful for oil spill response.

The Louisiana berms project does not survive a rigorous cost-benefit analysis, even without taking yet unquantified environmental impacts into account. The value of the berms as an oil spill response measure depends on how much oil they trapped. Estimates vary, and no precise figures are available, but no estimates of how much oil the berms captured are much greater than 1,000 total barrels.   In comparison, according to peer-reviewed government estimates released in November, burning, skimming, and chemical dispersion addressed a total of between 890,000 and 1.85 million barrels spilled from the Macondo well.

To be sure, had the berms been constructed sooner and more extensively, had weather and other factors pushed more oil toward the Louisiana coast, had other response measures been less effective, and had the spill lasted longer, perhaps the berms would have trapped more oil. But not much more than 1,000 barrels, in the context of a spill in which nearly five million barrels of oil were released, and approximately four million barrels entered the ocean, is a miniscule amount by any measure.

On the cost side of the equation, according to the state, as of November 1, five months after the Corps and National Incident Command approved the project, “10 miles of sand berm have been built and two more berms segments … are scheduled to be completed within the next two weeks” at a cost of about $220 million.317 To put this dollar figure in perspective, according to BP’s estimates, it has paid approximately $581 million to the federal government, $65 million to Florida, $62 million to Alabama, $77 million to Mississippi, and $293 million (including the cost of the berms) to Louisiana for “response and removal.” BP’s expenditure on berms is about three times greater than its expenditures for all other response and removal activities in Louisiana. The $220 million BP has spent on the berms to date, along with the additional $140 million BP has committed to the project, represents about one-third of the total amount BP has paid to the federal government and the states for oil response and removal in the Gulf of Mexico….

From the perspective of the Commission staff, however, $220 million for a spill response measure that trapped not much more than 1,000 barrels of oil is not a compelling cost-benefit tradeoff.

Ouch.  That would be $220,000 a barrel.  You could have bought Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen’s 416-foot yacht “the Octopus” [picture below] which has a helipad and a crew that includes “several former Navy Seals” and sent it out to skim for a lot more oil at that price.  But I digress.

The Report found:

B. Berms like the Louisiana project are not a viable oil spill response measure.

More generally, evidence available to the Commission staff reveals two main concerns that counsel against employing offshore barrier berms as a spill response measure in the future.

First and foremost, the length of time and cost to build only a fraction of the proposed project shows that, even with advance planning and preparation, and rapid review of proposed actions, it is unlikely that offshore barrier berms could ever be constructed to any effective scale during an emergency. In late May, a few weeks after CPRA filed its initial permit application with the Corps, Governor Jindal complained that “[w]e could have built 10 miles of sand [berms] already if [the feds] would have approved our permit when we originally requested it.”  But by November 1, five months after the Corps and National Incident Command had approved the project, only ten miles of berms had been constructed.  While there were unforeseen delays, even the rosiest construction time frame estimates plainly stated that five of the six berm reaches would not be completed until November 1 and the sixth reach would not be completed until the end of November, months after a relief well would have stopped the flow of oil.323 Indeed, by the time the well was capped, less than six percent of the berms project had been completed.  If the pace of construction for the Louisiana berms is even within the general range of what can be expected for similar projects in the future, offshore barrier berms cannot be constructed quickly enough to protect coastlines from oil spills.

To the extent that construction of offshore barrier berms continues after a spill ends, to guard against residual oil intrusion or lingering subsurface plumes, the design of such berms as “sacrificial” poses similar concerns. To ensure that the berms do not degrade for however long the threat of oil remains latent (to the extent that can even be determined), the berms would have to be: (1) designed to be permanent, which would slow down construction and thus reduce effectiveness during the emergency active spill phase; (2) constantly maintained in a sacrificial state for as long as the residual oil threat persists; or (3) built initially as sacrificial structures and later converted to permanent structures. Under any of these scenarios, there are serious questions about whether offshore barrier berms could ever be constructed in time to be effective, especially since, as EPA argued, partial construction during the emergency period could result in oil washing onto the bayside shore of the berms and barrier islands, making matters worse from an environmental perspective.


14 Responses to Berm notice: Oil Spill Commission staff finds Jindal’s sand piles were “Underwhelmingly Effective, Overwhelmingly Expensive”

  1. Ed Hummel says:

    A perfect example of a scientifically illiterate politician pushing a “common sense” solution.

  2. Robert says:

    Below is link to a recent editorial in the New Orleans Times Picayune about the “relationship” between Louisiana politicians and Big Oil.

    Sad, but very true.

  3. BB says:

    Notwithstanding the inability to produce and install berms with effective speed (Points B and C), is it possible that a reason these berms weren’t effective was because the direness of the anticipated coastal effects were simply way overblown and not realized (Point A)?

  4. Prokaryotes says:

    It is exactly these kinds of panic actions which might be characteristic once humans start fighting climate change. Just with this situation you have to deal with it in a preemptive kind of way, to bad that nobody listen to the warnings to reduce our carbon foot prints in time.

  5. Steve Bloom says:

    The report: “But whether it was flawed at the time, or only flawed in retrospect, with the benefit of hindsight, is not a question this paper seeks to answer.”

    Ha. It’s not like they don’t know the answer, they just didn’t address it.

    But all of this was a sweet deal for certain contractors who are major conributors of Jindal’s.

    It seems that when you scratch a Republican the layer of pork is never far below the surface. “Efficient government,” my hind end.

  6. Jim Groom says:

    What a surprise. A nonsensical and political solution did not work. What might be next?

  7. Dano says:

    As with Mr Bloom, I also suspect that there is a strong relationship between the boondoggle contractors and Jindal’s campaign contributors.



  8. catman306 says:

    Yes, Steve Bloom and Dano, people who can follow this money will probably find close connections between Jindal and those contractors hired to build the berm.

    Money followers, your attention is requested in this matter. Was this another of the infamous ‘no bid’ contracts that Louisiana is known for?

  9. Tim says:

    Now that his stupid project has fallen flat, maybe Jindal can sell it as “Keynesian” project: ‘dig a hole and fill it back in’ as a palliative for unemployment. Of course, Keynes himself never thought that dig-a-hole-and-fill-it-back-in projects were a wise way for the public sector to stimulate the economy in a recession, but hey, conservatives lie about that too.

  10. Dan L. says:

    I flew over the Chandeleur barrier islands off the Louisiana coast on Wednesday with AP reporters and a representative of the Gulf Restoration Network. Quite a bit of beach has been restored, and the northern end of the chain has been lengthened to some of its former extent.

    NPR story

    Restoration was not the original intent, of course. The original intent was ostensibly to block the oil, but actually to make Jindal look good and perhaps line a few pockets in the time-honored Louisiana tradition. The work has morphed into a restoration project to disguise what an expensive waste it is.

    It will be great if the restoration lasts: the Chandeleurs are a natural treasure. But why would it? The underlying causes of their decline haven’t changed. Due to human interference with the Mississippi and subsidence from oil and gas extraction, they are doomed, anyway. Another few inches of sea level rise, another big storm and they will be gone.

  11. Barry says:

    BB (#3), “overblown”?? That implies a poor assessment of the risk at the time. That isn’t what happened.

    There were millions of barrels of oil in the water and nobody could predict the weather and wind patterns in the coming weeks. Louisiana got very lucky the oil didn’t get literally overblown by onshore winds or a hurricane. The threat was real, and will be next time.

    I think the question is whether barrier islands are the best way to spend money if your goal is to get oil out of the water. The answer seems to be “no” regardless of how the weather played out.

    Perhaps they are the best way to direct oil-recovery money if you have goals beyond recovering the most oil.

  12. BB says:


    If you’re implying that satisfaction with an appropriate self-assessment of risk at the time provides absolution from the final result, then you create a situation where anything can acceptably happen after the initial risk assessment, and any prediction becomes unfalsifiable.

    You’re setting up a scenario there that says that ‘nobody could predict’ x,y,z and _____ ‘got very lucky’ so that any future dire predicion doesn’t require any sort of validation metric.

    How can that square? If a forecaster labels a snowstorm as the equivalent of the ‘Worst disaster of our time’, and it doesn’t happen, no one out there is going to be saying, “Ah, but he did have a good handle on the risk potential at that time”. They’re going to say he was wrong, and that the event was overblown.

    I agree with you though in that the berms are not the best way to spend money for that specific goal. And I agree that there isn’t time to mobilize this effort in the future even if it were a good idea.

    As the report stated, if there was an actual direness to the event (like the hurricane scenario, or other mitigation methods overwhelmed), the berms would have provided additional benefit). Based on the direness of the risk assessment, an ‘any means necessary’ approach that ‘spares no expense’ would have included such a crazy ploy as a last-ditch thing. But, if there was a more accurate assessment, and less direness, then it might have been avoided entirely in the first place.

    As it is, we’re still left with the ‘greatest natural disaster of our time’ with no one willing to admit they over-reached. Any qualifiers later to such statements that make them still seem accurate will imply that future extreme predictions are also subject to the same sorts of caveats that dilute their actionable meaning. As you know, every time the boy cried ‘wolf’, there really could have been a wolf.

  13. Bill Waterhouse says:

    #4 – Exactly. What insane geoengineering scheme will be endorsed by Fox News when climate change cannot be ignored anymore?

  14. Omega Centauri says:

    Obviously it was contra reality and expert opinion. But when has this stopped republican politicians. He did it to play the savior against what the evil government scientists wanted done. When has truth ever had an impact on the public perception?