Did the government cause the Gulf spill?

The generally accepted view of the Deepwater Horizon disaster has focused on the blowout preventer and the non-standard procedures BP conducted just before the explosion and fire.  However, most of the damage and the main source of the spill came from the collapse and sinking of the DH platform rather than the initial explosion.  A new report by the Center for Public Integrity, based on testimony from people on scene and Coast Guard logs, contains evidence that the platform sunk because of a botched response from the Coast Guard, which failed to coordinate firefighting efforts and to get the proper resources to fight the fire:

The Coast Guard has gathered evidence it failed to follow its own firefighting policy during the Deepwater Horizon disaster and is investigating whether the chaotic spraying of tons of salt water by private boats contributed to sinking the ill-fated oil rig, according to interviews and documents.

Coast Guard officials told the Center for Public Integrity that the service does not have the expertise to fight an oil rig fire and that its response to the April 20 explosion may have broken the service’s own rules by failing to ensure a firefighting expert supervised the half-dozen private boats that answered the Deepwater Horizon’s distress call to fight the blaze.

An official maritime investigation led by Coast Guard Capt. Hung M. Nguyen in New Orleans is examining whether the salt water that was sprayed across the burning platform overran the ballast system that kept the rig upright, changing its weight distribution, and causing it to list.

Ocean rigs are massive, tall structures — usually several stories high — that float on the water.  The rig can be lowered or raised by adjusting air and sea water contained in its ballast tanks.  These tanks have seals that were likely damaged by the fire blazing on the rig, which would have allowed the massive amounts of sea water sprayed on the rig to fight the fire to enter the tanks and seriously disturb the rig’s center of gravity.

The main source of the spill was not the blowout preventer, but the riser pipe to the rig.  When the rig collapsed and sank a few days after the blowout, the pipe tore open and began pouring tens of thousands of barrels of oil each day into the Gulf of Mexico.  Had the rig been salvaged, it’s likely that most of the spill would never have occurred.

The Coast Guard is not supposed to participate in firefighting, but instead assign an expert to coordinate the private firefighting efforts of the rig operator and its contractors.  The Coast Guard failed to do so, and the result was an uncoordinated, “general response” effort that mainly relied on salt water to extinguish the fires.  That is not the most effective way to fight rig fires; the best way is to use foam, which apparently wasn’t on hand.  An expert would have known this, but as CPI’s report of the testimony shows, none was assigned:

Kevin Robb, a civilian Coast Guard search and rescue specialist who acted as the first watch commander the night of the accident, testified that there was no attempt by the Coast Guard Command Center in New Orleans to designate a fire marshal to take charge.

“Did you, sir, make any efforts on that first night when you responded to the Command Center to identify a certified fire marshal to oversee the firefighting efforts?” Robb was asked at the hearing on May 11, according to a transcript reviewed by the Center.

“No, sir, I did not,” he answered.

“Are you aware of anyone else at the Coast Guard Command Center that made such an effort?

“No, sir, not to my knowledge.”

“Do you know, if at any point, over the next several days there was ever any designation of an authority, a governmental authority to oversee or coordinate the firefighting effort for this rig?” Robb was asked.

“No, sir, I don’t,” replied Robb.

Rob Bluey notes that the White House has been quiet about this, and has a few ideas why:

These new details raise serious questions for the White House, which has repeatedly pinned the blame on BP. If it turns out the Coast Guard is at fault — either because it didn’t follow proper procedures or couldn’t respond adequately because of a lack of resources — the public has a right to know why we’re just now learning this information 100 days after the disaster began.

The crippling budget cuts President Obama proposed for the Coast Guard also deserve a closer examination. Obama’s spending plan reduced the blue water fleet by a full one-third, slashed 1,000 personnel, five cutters, and several aircraft, including helicopters. According to the Center for Public Integrity, the Coast Guard updated its official maritime rescue manual — advising against firefighting aboard a rig — just seven months before the Deepwater Horizon explosion. That change in policy came at a time when Adm. Thad Allen warned the budget cuts threatened to turn the Coast Guard into a “hollow force.”

An earlier report from Mehta and Solomon also raised important questions that the White House has yet to answer about what Obama knew when. That investigation revealed the White House timeline of events failed to acknowledge an oil leak until four days after the explosion, even though the Coast Guard’s timeline reported a leak one day after the explosion.

That also has a relation to the administration’s insistence on imposing a moratorium on all new drilling in the Gulf.  If the issue was that previous inspections by the MMS couldn’t be trusted, it wouldn’t take a blanket moratorium to fix it.  MMS could reinspect each rig and allow new drilling to proceed on a case-by-case basis.  But if the Coast Guard has inadequate resources to address rig fires thanks to ill-conceived budget cuts, then their fear of expanded drilling makes a little more sense.

The White House needs to come clean on this point.  Certainly BP’s actions created the situation in the Gulf, but if the US response is what made it exponentially worse, we need to know that and take the corrective action necessary to ensure we don’t repeat it.

Update: I changed “have the proper resources” to “get the proper resources” in the first paragraph.  The CG isn’t expected to fight the fires themselves, but to coordinate the response and resources.  “Get” is more accurate.