Gulf oil crisis is getting worse, not better

Hon. Ernest Istook Former Republican Congressman
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It’s approaching 80 days and each day the oil cleanup falls farther behind.

The math is simple:  More oil comes out of the Deepwater Horizon well each day than we collect.  So after 80 days things are worse rather than better.  It’s because those in charge have failed to re-assign priorities and assemble enough resources to skim and intercept the oil before it reaches shore.

The feds and BP take turns pointing fingers at each other, but both are at fault for the slow-paced response to the original spill.  But unless the Obama administration removes bureaucratic barriers and red tape, BP cannot do what it should.

An estimated 35,000 to 60,000 barrels erupt from the ocean floor each day.  How much is collected?  Monday it was reported as 24,980 barrels collected on-site, and a comparative tiny amount via skimming.

At the well site, two large collectors (the Deepwater Explorer and Q4000) suck up and burn, or store, large quantities of oil.  BP says its capacity is 28,000 barrels a day.  But that system cannot capture all oil because it spreads before it reaches those ships.  They want to bring in a third “oil vacuum,” the Helix Producer, to join them soon and raise capacity to 50,000.  And none of these address the millions of barrels already at large.

To do that, the defenses are pitifully week.  According to the Washington Post, “the skimming operations that were touted as key to preventing environmental disaster have averaged less than 900 barrels a day.”  Yet BP bragged to the feds (pre-spill) that it could skim 171,000 barrels daily.

Why is the actual collection so low?  The skimming vessels are mostly a large number of hired shrimp boats and only a small handful of actual OSRV’s—dedicated Oil Spill Response Vessels – are equipped and suitable for the job.  The few OSRV’s evidently top out at 4,000 barrels (96,000 gallons) apiece of daily capacity.  Ninety percent of what skimmers gather is water, however, so they actually top out at 400 barrels each.  Yet our EPA requires them to unload the combined oil-and-water mix to an approved storage facility for later separation of oil and water.

This is why our government’s rejection of Europe’s offers is so wrong-headed.  The OSRV’s that Europe offered are bigger than ours.  Their capacity is typified by these ships—just some of many found in foreign inventories of OSRV’s:

Skril Herkule (Norway)            9,000 barrels

Hein (Netherlands)                        22,000 barrels

Geopotes 14 (Netherlands)            47,000 barrels

The OSRV’s we are using would not even pass muster in Europe.  Norway’s official plan for a major spill requires using skimmers with 9700-barrel minimum capacity, which is over twice our largest US vessel.

Those European OSRV’s use proven technology but were kept away.  The still-being-tested giant A Whale skimmer uses a new system, which owners claim could be 500,000 barrels daily (again, about 90 percent water and 10 percent oil).

Why have we kept away the big ships?  It’s not simply a Jones Act issue.  It’s also our Environmental Protection Agency that Dutch oil spill experts first identified as the problem.  The big ships use systems that discharge the cleaner-but-not-pure oil as they work–and that’s an EPA no-no.

No matter how much cleaner the discharged water is, unless it’s 99.9985 percent pure (15 parts per million of impurity), it must be hauled to shore and deposited in EPA-approved storage.  So for each gallon of oil, they are required to haul 9 gallons of water.  This cripples the already-overburdened skimming fleet.

Last week a joint directive from EPA and Coast Guard freed up some of U.S.-based OSRV’s that had been held in reserve in case of spills elsewhere.   That will help, since only 400 of 2,000 U.S.-based OSRV’s had been sent to help with the spill, according to a count kept by Sen. George LeMieux (R, FL).  But the directive still requires bureaucratic approval for each vessel to leave its assigned area and head to the Gulf.  And they are still low-capacity ships compared to Europe’s

Although our government proclaims that a small number of foreign vessels are assisting, it has not identified any of these as being OSRV’s or high capacity.  They seem instead to be playing lesser roles in the response.

Finger-pointing between BP and the Obama Administration won’t fix anything.  Removing federal tape would help immensely.  That’s part of The Heritage Foundation’s to-do checklist for recovering from the oil spill, which includes:

Frustrated state and local officials, especially in Louisiana, say the federal government is hindering the response and their way of life and economy are at stake.  President Obama’s continuing pursuit of a deepwater drilling moratorium (blocked for now by the courts) is an extra job-killing burden on them.  Washington should pay attention, and start enabling a stronger and better response to this major catastrophe.

Former U.S. Congressman Ernest Istook is now a distinguished fellow at The Heritage Foundation.  First appeared at www.foundry.org.