In the wake of developments in the Gulf of Mexico over the past few months, 2007's The U.S. Coast Guard Strategy for Maritime Safety, Security, and Stewardship was, as it turns out, prophetic:
Advances in technology and changing environmental conditions are expanding the use of the Outer Continental Shelf . . . to meet growing demands for . . . energy. . . . Growth in activity has increased risk to mariners, communities and ecosystems and challenges traditional legal regimes and capabilities for governing the maritime domain.1
On 20 April 2010 maritime oil response changed forever. From now on, it's a challenge of scale. The Coast Guard's mobilization after the explosion on the BP Deepwater Horizon mobile offshore drilling unit, resulting in the loss of 11 lives, began as a search-and-rescue operation. The event has evolved into the largest environmental disaster in the nation's history. Though precise estimates are impossible, oil continues to gush into the gulf at an estimated rate of 1.5 to 2.5 million gallons per day. Drilling of a relief well, which is the industry gold-standard for cutting off the flow, is under way but might take months to complete.
The Coast Guard continues to lead this unprecedented all-hands-on-deck response, but the spill's size and scope require a whole-of-government effort. While all await completion of the relief well-or some other solution to stop the flow-the service's mission is to maintain a layered defense, contain and recover as much crude as possible at sea, and when the oil breaches defenses, recover it from shore.
Where Are the Resources?
Though the flow is coming from a single wellhead, the Coast Guard is responding to thousands of small slicks across the gulf each day. Oil moving through the water column is broken up by underwater currents, other environmental conditions, and dispersants. Predicting where the oil will surface, tracking the surface slicks, and positioning response resources are constant challenges. And the American people have lost their patience, frustrated that the government does not have the capabilities and capacities necessary to stop the flow.
Rather (consistent with the Oil Pollution Act of 1990), these resources reside predominantly in the hands of private industry. The government simply does not have the technology required to cap a wellhead a mile below sea level. Citizens and policy makers are reacting, and new laws and regulations are a foregone conclusion. In the interim, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar has imposed a six-month moratorium on deepwater drilling to review the safety of these operations. Offshore service companies that support oil and gas drilling have mounted a legal challenge to this moratorium, and the litigation is ongoing.2
Despite this current disaster, it is likely that domestic deepwater drilling will resume. The Minerals Management Service (on 18 June changed to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement) defines deepwater as depths greater than 1,000 feet (305 meters) and ultra-deepwater as depths greater than 5,000 feet (1,524 meters).3 The United States, though it has less than 5 percent of the world's population, uses over 20 percent of the world's total energy. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the U.S. primary energy consumption in 2008 was 101.554 quadrillion British Thermal Units or about 21 percent of the world total.4
The transportation sector accounts for 70 percent of our domestic oil consumption.5 Until the United States makes the transition to renewable sources of energy and reduce its appetite for oil-particularly within the transportation sector, where gas tanks cannot be filled with wind or solar energy-our national reliance on oil will continue. The United States consumed 19.5 million barrels per day of petroleum products during 2008, making it the world's largest petroleum consumer. Altogether, net imports of crude oil and petroleum products (imports minus exports) accounted for 57 percent of U.S. total petroleum consumption that year. Our domestic demand for oil exceeds by three times our domestic production of 6.7 million barrels a day, requiring us to import vast quantities.6
Our dependence on foreign oil supplies is a long-standing national security issue and has elevated the importance of developing our domestic supply. Of that supply, 30 percent comes from the Gulf of Mexico, with 70 percent produced from deepwater wells.7 The largest and most promising new domestic discoveries of oil have been in the gulf's deepwater, which is where the largest quantities of undiscovered technically recoverable oil are thought to exist.
What About the Next Spill?
Before drilling resumes, the Coast Guard, as the lead agency for maritime oil response, must assess what competencies, capacities, and capabilities it must have for the next deepwater spill. The service must continue to provide the public with an assurance that accidents can be dealt with effectively, because they will happen.
So, what response resources and competencies are needed? Where should those resources be placed? In government, the armed forces, industry, or some form of public-private partnership? Who will pay for them? Is the current National Response Framework's National Incident Management System adequate to manage a sustained response to a spill of national significance? Or is a military command-and-control structure superior?
Before tackling these questions, some historical context is necessary. Deepwater Horizon is not the first offshore blowout to cause a major spill. In 1969, Union Oil's platform A blew in 188 feet of water, six miles off the coast of Santa Barbara, causing 100,000 barrels of oil to gush into the water and contaminate miles of California coastline.8 In the aftermath, Secretary of the Interior Walter J. Hickel ordered a halt to offshore drilling. The cause of the blowout was determined to be inadequate well casing, and in 1970, with stricter federal regulations in place, offshore drilling activities were allowed to resume.
In 1979, Mexico's Pemex oil company was drilling an exploratory well, the Ixtoc I, in 150 feet of water, 600 miles south of Texas in the Gulf of Mexico. A loss of drilling mud caused a blowout to occur. In a series of events striking in similarity to Deepwater Horizon, the escaping oil and gas ignited, causing the platform to burn and collapse, restricting access into the wellhead area. Divers were eventually able to make their way to the blowout preventer and activate it, but the pressures were so great the valves were reopened. Until a relief well was in place and operating ten months after the blowout, 10,000 to 30,000 barrels of oil a day flowed into the Gulf of Mexico. In the interim, thousands of square miles of the gulf were affected, including several hundred miles of U.S. coastline.
More recently, on 21 August 2009, a blowout occurred on a wellhead platform drilling off the northwest coast of Australia, resulting in the uncontrolled discharge of approximately 2,000 barrels per day. It took two and a half months to drill a relief well and stop the flow. The Australian government has yet to release the results of its investigation into the cause of the accident.
More Blowouts Are Inevitable
Those incidents make clear that spills will occur in the future, and that offshore blowouts, particularly those in deepwater, often take months to shut off-normally by drilling a relief well. Additional forthcoming safety regulations likely will require industry to increase the redundancy of blowout preventers. However, human error is often also part of the chain that leads up to those types of catastrophic incidents. Therefore, response agencies must assume that safety systems will fail and humans will err and plan accordingly for a worst-case scenario. The government, industry, or some form of public-private partnership must acquire the resources to contain and recover vast quantities of oil, and sustain that response for 180 days or more.
A threshold challenge to persuading government or industry to invest in such enhanced response capabilities is that offshore blowouts are low-probability, high-impact events. Thousands of rigs in the Gulf of Mexico and throughout the world have been extracting millions of barrels of offshore oil for years with few major incidents. It is always challenging to fully resource an expensive capability for a contingency that seldom occurs. Both resource-challenged governments and industry instinctively avoid the cost of such investment.
Industry's singular focus on return on investment will invariably result in its under-resourcing these capabilities, unless they are required by law. And capabilities that are acquired, if left idle, tend to be reduced or eliminated over time as finite resources are redirected to more pressing needs. Yet procuring, maintaining, and retaining adequate response capability is precisely the cost of being fully prepared. The American public cannot wait until another well blows out to enhance the tools responders need to do their jobs. Now is the time to move forward with new requirements-and new legislation and regulation-to ensure sufficient response capabilities are maintained.
The real question that needs to occupy the Coast Guard's strategic thinking and others involved at every level of the response is, "What's needed to combat the next spill of national significance?" The Deepwater Horizon response has made clear that the responders-government or industry-must have more resources ready, and we must develop and implement new oil-spill response technologies. First, deepwater drillers must have more robust recovery systems on hand. While the oil leaked, BP expended precious time to engineer insertion and capping recovery systems. In the future, those recovery systems must be prefabricated and available.
What We Need Now
The tools for responders, including dispersants, skimmers, in situ burning, and boom have not advanced much since the 1989 Exxon Valdez grounding and spill in Alaska. The limits of those legacy tools are showing in this current long-term response. Faster skimmers with greater oil-recovery capacity are needed. Boom must be more durable and better able to protect against oil intrusion in higher sea states. Skimming systems and boom also must be re-engineered to enhance capabilities.
As with any evolution in the maritime environment, weather is a controlling factor. The effectiveness of skimmers and boom is directly proportional to favorable weather conditions. Boom in particular was never designed to be in place for a sustained time. In high sea states oil is easily washed over boom, and maintaining hundreds of miles of boom on-station requires, much like a series of crab pots, constant tending. Boom must be continuously set, repositioned, replaced, and cleaned. Doing so requires vessels capable of delivering large quantities of cumbersome and heavy equipment and designed to navigate in shallow water. Tending hundreds of miles of boom also requires continuous surveillance. Getting people, vessels, and boom to remote locations is challenging and requires solutions such as constructing camps and employing floating hotels to ensure responders and equipment are on-scene.
In situ burning-burning oil on the sea surface-is being used in this response more than ever and with great effectiveness. However, such burning can only be conducted in calm seas. Moreover, because it converts solid oil pollution to air pollution, an environmental determination must be made on a case-by-case basis on whether the oil on the water poses a greater threat than converting it to airborne media.
Dispersants are being applied in unprecedented amounts, particularly underwater. These are chemical agents that include surfactants, solvents, and other compounds that redirect an oil slick from the surface into the water below, causing the oil to break into small droplets. Dispersants do not reduce the amount of oil entering the water, they simply cause it to enter the water column instead of the shoreline.
While dispersants appear to have been highly effective in reducing the amount of surface oil slicks, they must be used judiciously. Questions remain regarding the potential long-term effects of the high-volume application of subsurface dispersants in this response. We must await academically rigorous studies to more accurately gauge how dispersants can be appropriately employed in the next spill, particularly with respect to subsurface application in deepwater.
America's entrepreneurs and inventors are also responding. Many new technologies have been introduced, and some of them have great potential, including microorganisms that consume oil, new types of absorbent fibers, and enhanced skimming systems. We must aggressively work to capture the best of the inventions and incentivize their development so new tools are available for the next response.
Show Us the Money
Where should these competencies reside-and who should pay for them? Oil response, especially deepwater response, is a complex maritime mission. Given the apparent dissatisfaction with our government's lack of deepwater response capability, should the government seek to acquire some level of capability? Doing so will be expensive. Deepwater response requires cutting-edge technology, like remotely operated vehicles, to work in an environment where humans cannot go.
If the government decides to acquire some capacity, it will not only have to procure it, but also remain fully invested and committed to keeping up with its rapid pace of advancement. Alternatively, if the government wishes to gain deepwater response capabilities but does not want to foot the bill, it could consider a penny-per-barrel tax on oil, which is how the National Oil Pollution Trust Fund is currently resourced. Other forms of public-private partnerships should also be considered.
Presently, the burden is on industry to fund adequate response resources. The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA 90), Pub. L. No. 101-380, requires industry to acquire the necessary response capability to remove oil from a worst-case scenario. OPA 90's passage brought on a new industry of so-called oil-spill-response organizations. Congress should decide if the current OPA 90 authority is sufficient and prod industry to purchase the resources required to respond to Deepwater Horizon's new definition of a worst-case discharge, i.e., sufficient response resources to fight a 60,000-100,000-barrel per day spill for 180 days or more.
In Search of the Best Framework
What about the response framework itself? Is the current National Response Framework's National Incident Management System (NIMS) adequate to manage a sustained response to a spill of national significance, or is a military command-and-control structure superior? What is now known as NIMS, or Incident Command System (ICS), was created by the U.S. Forest Service in the 1970s to coordinate the efforts of multiple agencies battling wildfires. The system is designed to allow multiple layers of local, state, federal, and industry representatives to easily "plug and play" into a variety of response scenarios. NIMS was used successfully in recent gulf hurricane responses, including Hurricane Katrina. It is an excellent framework to coordinate responses to discrete incidents of a fixed duration.
The dynamic, continuing, and ever-expanding nature of the Deepwater Horizon response, however, is challenging NIMS. No framework is able to perfectly coordinate a response with such a large footprint. NIMS seems to be straining to coordinate this multi-regional, multi-state, and offshore effort. Reviewing the system's strengths and weaknesses is an important facet of the lessons learned in this response.
One alternative is a military campaign plan supported by a command-and-control (C2) framework. A campaign plan is notionally attractive because of its ability to synergize the strategic, operational, and tactical levels of a geographically vast response. C2 provides the corresponding military chain of command, which can provide responders with greater real-time operational awareness. A campaign plan also has the potential to be more effective in sustained responses where strategic aims are not attainable through a single tactical action at a single place and time, but instead require several related phases to be executed simultaneously or in sequence.
However, if a campaign plan is used, response leaders would have to be careful not to alienate the many local and industry responders. Those responders bring with them important skills, and they have specialized and local knowledge, including awareness of their constituencies' equities, which is vital to factor into the response decision process.
The Right Combination
Thus, any military-style framework that chafes with state, local, and other nongovernmental responders would not function. It might be that a hybrid framework using a military campaign plan and C2, but with a NIMS/ICS framework that allows local responders to engage, will provide the best foundation for mounting a sustained response to an incident affecting a vast geographic area and requiring real-time situational awareness. The desired result is a framework that allows everyone to participate, but also provides responders with enhanced operational awareness.
Development of our domestic oil supply in the Gulf of Mexico is vital to our national security. But, as we have seen, deepwater drilling poses an increased risk of a catastrophic maritime spill. As the Coast Guard continues to lead this complex maritime response, it must also be a learning agency. The service must begin thinking strategically today about the competencies, capabilities, and framework necessary for the next response and where those resources should be placed. It must communicate Deepwater Horizon's lessons learned with U.S. citizens, political leadership, the regulated industry, and the response community. Directly confronting the challenges and threats posed by the increasing complexity of deepwater exploration is entirely consistent with our Strategy for Maritime Safety, Security, and Stewardship. It is also vital to being Semper Paratus for the next response.
1. The U.S. Coast Guard Strategy for Maritime Safety, Security, and Stewardship, 19 Jan. 2007, Section II: "Challenges and Threats in the Maritime Domain," p. 4.
2. Memorandum from Secretary Salazar to Director, Minerals Management Service (MMS), 28 May 2010, and MMS Notice to Operators of federal oil and gas leases in the outer Continental Shelf regions of the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific, 30 May 2010. For the purposes of the Moratorium NTL, "deepwater" means depths greater than 500 feet. See Hornbeck Offshore Services, L.L.C. et. al. v. Salazar et. al., (E.D. La. 2010) Case No. 10-1663.
3. See Minerals Management Service Deepwater Gulf of Mexico 2009; Interim Report of 2008 Highlights, May 2009, p. 9. On 18 June 2010, by Order of the Secretary of Interior, Order No. 3302.
4. See U.S. Total Energy Statistics for 2008.
5. U.S. Energy Information Administration petroleum fact sheet.
6. U.S. Energy Information Administration.
7. Minerals Management Service Deepwater Gulf of Mexico 2009; Interim Report of 2008 Highlights, May 2009.
8. See County of Santa Barbara Planning and Development Energy Division.