'Massive failure on innumerable levels'

By U.S. Sen. Olympia J. Snowe | Jun 09, 2010

Washington, D.C. — The explosion and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig on April 20 tragically claimed 11 lives and spawned the worst oil spill in our nation’s history.

The catastrophe has been characterized by an abundance of failure and an ineffectiveness of truly staggering proportions. As ranking member of the subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard, I find it astonishing that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Coast Guard have not been given a mandatory statutory role in permitting offshore oil and gas development. Relegating them to the back bench in these decisions is an egregious mistake that could have helped avert this devastation.

According to the New York Times, the Minerals Management Service, the federal agency that permits offshore oil and gas activity, has rubber-stamped 346 drilling plans since January 2009, including one for the Deepwater Horizon rig, even though they lacked the environmental permits required by NOAA.

Meanwhile, NOAA Administrator Dr. Jane Lubchenco recently commented on the MMS’s proposed five-year offshore drilling program for 2010 through 2015, saying MMS understated environmental impacts by cherry-picking its data to downplay risk, blatantly ignoring the nearly 12 million gallons of oil that spilled during hurricanes Katrina and Rita in its risk assessment.  

The reactions of BP and Transocean to this calamity have been little more than a series of efforts to downplay its severity. Notably, in an article in the Wall Street Journal on April 28, BP called the spill “stable” and said it was moving farther away from the coastline — a claim that now seems preposterous as oil is fouling shores in Louisiana and Mississippi, and threatens the coast of Florida.

Furthermore, a "60 Minutes" report that aired May 16 quoted a worker from the rig asserting that prior to the accident, BP executives were pushing to drill faster, ignoring potential problems with the most vital piece of equipment, the blowout preventer, including the appearance of shards of rubber from a key safety device that were shot to the surface in drilling fluid.

As the agency tasked with managing our living marine resources and carrying out fundamental oceanographic research, NOAA clearly understands the dangers inherent in offshore oil and gas activities.

The Coast Guard is also well-versed in spill response, serving as the lead agency for the federal response to oil spills in the marine environment and approving all oil spill response plans from vessels, but not undersea operations like the Deepwater Horizon well — this task falls to the MMS.

I see no reason why these two inherently similar practices should be handled by different agencies, particularly when MMS is willing to approve a response plan, as it did in this case, despite the fact it contained no description of how a blowout of this magnitude would be dealt with.

Unfortunately, the myriad impacts of that senseless decision are leveling destruction and exacting untold costs on the residents of the Gulf Coast and their livelihoods many, many times over.

Yet, there has been no federal mandate for NOAA or the Coast Guard to be an integral part of developing from the ground up the assessments that govern offshore exploration.

I find it shocking that our nation’s best ocean scientists would be relegated to the sidelines during development of such a strategy instead of being involved from day one. I intend to make it a requirement for NOAA and the Coast Guard to be at the table when these permits are approved so MMS will not be able to simply turn a blind eye to the vital input of these agencies.

Part of these agencies expertise comes from spill response drills held every three years, the most recent of which took place in March in Portland. I toured Portland Harbor, the second-highest volume oil port on the East Coast, on June 1 with the Coast Guard to be debriefed on this drill and asses the challenges we would face in responding to a spill here in Maine.

The exercise conducted by Capt. McPherson and so many others from the Coast Guard and dozens of other federal agencies is precisely what we should do more of to ensure we are prepared to handle these worst-case scenarios before they occur.

Lessons learned from these drills must be brought to bear on the regulatory and response processes — not to mention the industry itself — so it can demonstrate to the satisfaction of regulators and the American public that when such situations arise, we will not be left to solve the problem by trial-and-error.

I cannot put into words my horror at the extent of this tragedy that could profoundly change the fundamental makeup of Gulf Coast communities for generations. This is a massive failure on innumerable levels, and we must do all in our power to ensure that those responsible are held to account and we bring all available expertise to bear on future decisions about offshore drilling activities.

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