May 7, 2010 11:31 AM by Sharlee Jacobs
WASHINGTON - As the oil rig burned and thousands of barrels
of the thick crude gushed into the Gulf of Mexico on that day in
April, Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad Allen soon realized there weren't
enough tools available to respond to the catastrophe.
There wasn't enough dispersant readily available to break up the
huge oil slick quickly growing on the water's surface. There were
too few other oil-recovery options, like controlled burns and
crude-eating micro-organisms, to stop the environmental and coastal
devastation that could follow. There wasn't enough research
completed to offer new spill recovery technologies that could help
pick up the slack of limited resources.
Allen watched it all unfold nearly eight years ago to the day
that the current oil spill disaster threatened even greater peril
in the Gulf. In 2002, he played the role of commander over a mock
oil disaster about 10 miles off the Louisiana coast, a staged
exercise used to help the government prepare for such disasters.
Today, Allen is an admiral and is in charge of the government's
real-life response to what was once the unthinkable and something
earlier drills didn't anticipate - a deadly explosion on a British
Petroleum rig and thousands of barrels of oil a day spewing from a
The 2002 exercise offered valuable insights, including how to
set up command and response teams, and how to coordinate the
response among private and public officials, Allen said. But he and
others are haunted by things not learned, not anticipated and not
followed from the earlier drill.
Officials never anticipated an accident on the scale seen off
the Louisiana coast and responders didn't conduct exercises for an
uncontrollable spill so far out and so deep. And BP didn't file a
plan to specifically handle a major oil spill from an uncontrolled
blowout at its site because the federal agency that regulates
offshore rigs changed its rules two years ago to exempt certain
projects in the central Gulf region, according to an earlier
Associated Press review of official records.
Responders desperately need new and better ways to contain and
clean up the oily mass spreading each day over the Gulf's open
waters, and they need a seemingly endless supply of dispersant to
help break it up. These are facts discovered in 2002 and problems
facing responders today.
A lack of government-supported research means tests are being
conducted hastily now to determine whether oil dispersants can be
used safely a mile deep in the Gulf waters.
The 2002 drill found that government budget rules and strict
regulations "have inhibited research, development, test and
evaluation of response technologies," according to the report
produced after the exercise. For example, some policies limit spill
recovery tests to small simulation tanks that make it difficult to
adequately test how new products will respond to actual spills in
the open water.
Not conducting such experiments means responders must now wait
for the results of federal testing before moving forward with a
plan to pump oil dispersant deeper into the waters, closer to the
Inexperience with deepwater oil spills means no one knows
whether a 100-ton concrete dome being lowered to the seafloor will
help stop the gushing oil, something never done before at such
The 2002 report raised concerns about the limited availability
of new technologies to respond to spills, like controlled burns of
oil patches, and limited understanding of how best to use them.
Responders to the current spill have struggled to use the
controlled burns during rough weather and waters, trying the idea
at first but later limiting its use during clear skies and calm
Dispersants have been available, and responders have dumped more
than 253,000 gallons so far, including about 150,000 on Wednesday.
But the chemical's manufacturer is scrambling to keep up with
demand, ramping up production to as much as 70,000 gallons a day.
Supplies jumped from about 55,000 gallons available at the spill
response site late Wednesday to more than 317,000 available
Thursday night, officials said.
The 2002 exercise discovered "there is limited access to
adequate quantities of dispersants and delivery vehicles, which are
essential to effective oil spill response," the followup report
A "significant stockpile" of dispersants helped the current
response in the early days, Allen said.
Allen said he's confident there will be enough dispersant.
"We've gone back to the supply chain to make sure," he told
reporters in a recent briefing.
Many of the problems responders face in today's oil spill were
spelled out in the mock disaster staged eight years ago, known as
the 2002 Spill of National Significance Exercise. Such exercises
include participants from multiple local, state and federal
agencies and the private sector.
That exercise and several since also led to repeated calls for
an increase in the current $1 billion limit on emergency funding
from the federal Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund for accident
responses. The recommendation wasn't acted on until days after the
BP rig explosion, when a Senate bill was introduced that would
remove the limit and provide immediate access to money for cleanup.
The 2002 drill, staged from April 23 to April 25 that year,
envisioned an explosion on a make-believe ExxonMobil platform near
Timbalier Bay, a favorite night fishing spot nestled in the
underside of the boot of the Louisiana coast. Surrounding waters
are so shallow that some areas average only 4 feet in depth.
The scenario: The rig explosion sent as much as 3,000 barrels of
crude oil pouring into the Gulf and the uncontrollable discharge
would take 30 days to control.
The real, current catastrophe started on April 20, with an
explosion on a British Petroleum rig about 50 miles offshore that
eventually sank and triggered a gush of as much as 5,000 barrels of
crude a day. The oil is flowing out of a deepwater pipe 5,000 feet