Day 68: Why isn't the A-Whale in the Gulf yet?

The A-Whale bills itself as the largest open-water oil skimmer in the world, and it’s at least very impressive.  Originally an oil and ore tanker, the ship’s owners recently refitted the ship to do exactly the kind of work that the US so desperately needs in the Gulf of Mexico, and to do it on a vastly larger scale than current operations can handle.  According to the ship’s project manager, the entire American effort in 66 days has skimmed off 600,000 barrels of oil.  The ship’s owners claim that A-Whale can skim 500,000 barrels a day.

So where is the A-Whale now?  In the Gulf?  Not yet.  It’s on its way there after being tied to a dock in Norfolk, Virginia, and won’t be allowed to join the cleanup effort until the Coast Guard and the EPA figure out whether it meets their standards (h/t Deb Singer on Twitter):

After making a brief stop in Norfolk for refueling, U.S. Coast Guard inspections and an all-out publicity blitz intended to drum up public support, a giant tanker billed as the world’s largest oil skimming vessel set sail Friday for the Gulf of Mexico where it hopes to assist in the oil-cleanup effort.

The Taiwanese-owned, Liberian-flagged ship dubbed the “A Whale” stands 10 stories high, stretches 1,115 feet in length and has a nearly 200-foot beam. It displaces more water than an aircraft carrier. …

But a number of hurdles stand in his way. TMT officials said the company does not yet have government approval to assist in the cleanup or a contract with BP to perform the work.

That’s part of the reason the ship was tied to pier at the Virginia Port Authority‘s Norfolk International Terminals Friday morning. TMT and its public-relations agency invited scores of media, elected officials and maritime industry executives to an hour-long presentation about how the ship could provide an immediate boost to clean-up efforts in the Gulf.

TMT also paid to fly in Edward Overton, a professor emeritus of environmental sciences at Louisiana State University, to get a look at the massive skimmer.

Overton blasted BP and the federal government for a lack of effort and coordination in their dual oil-spill response and made a plea to the government to allow the A Whale to join the cleanup operation.

To be clear, the A-Whale has not yet been tested on the scale needed in this cleanup.  Limited testing, the ship’s owners say, have proven the concept of their new skimming technique.  They have already begun plans for a B-Whale to do the same work, but until someone gets the ship into the game, no one will know for certain whether it can operate at the full, advertised capacity.

However, the answer to that should be so what?  We badly need increased skimming capacity.  Even if this ship only ever gets one load of oil skimmed, that’s a potential 500,000 barrels of oil out of the Gulf, or an advance of 66 days at present rate.  While the Coast Guard needs to ensure seaworthiness, the EPA’s regulatory hurdles are in this case ridiculous.  We’re already in the worst-case scenario.  Even if the A-Whale doesn’t skim a single barrel of oil, they can hardly make the situation worse than it is right now.

This, by the way, is Day 68 of the Gulf crisis.  The A-Whale didn’t get refitted on Day 66; this work had to have been done over months, if not years.  Shouldn’t the government have known about the existence of this ship two months ago, and been working on certifying it immediately?    The A-Whale shouldn’t have had to stop at Norfolk at all to get the nation’s attention, but should have been hired to steam directly to the Gulf and get to work immediately. It’s indicative of a crisis management team that is spending more time worrying about regulations and red tape than cleaning up the mess, just as we saw with Packgen’s boom.

Update: The post was missing the link to the Daily Press.  I’ve fixed it now.