The Magazine

Oil Messed Up

Anger grows along the Gulf Coast at the Obama administration’s pathetic response to the largest oil spill in U.S. history.

Jul 5, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 40 • By WINSTON GROOM
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Point Clear, Alabama

Oil Messed Up

Photo Credit: Getty

The most breathtaking irony in the whole sorry oil spill saga is that the Obama administration has selected BP—which it continues to demonize as reckless, greedy, and incompetent—as the principal entity to contain and clean up this vast and dangerous mess.

The millions affected by the ongoing fiasco watch in dismay and outrage as they weigh the possibility that their way of life may be changed for a long time, if not forever. I am among them. Fishing and boating waters are closed. Swimming warning flags are flying. Orange containment booms line the shores, and the news is filled with pictures of dying birds. I have not seen the oil yet, but I have smelled it from a dozen miles away. It is not a pleasant smell. If it gets into the deltas and the marshes and streams that are nurseries for the marine life here on the coast, it could become a great tragedy. Which is all the more reason for anger and frustration at the monumental incompetence of the attempt to contain this greatest of oil spills in U.S. history.

It has been apparent from the outset that the Obama administration had no wish to be responsible for fixing this problem without having some sort of “plausible deniability.” They saw what happened to George W. Bush with New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina and wanted no part of that kind of trap. Instead, the White House embarked on a program of finger-pointing, bad-mouthing, scolding, and threats. Reckless, greedy, and incompetent as BP may be, this only made the company’s task considerably harder to perform—especially with the government’s much publicized “boot on their throat.”

Nobody along the Gulf Coast has a crystal ball or divining rod to read what’s in the administration’s mind, but anyone with a brain can see that a massive effort will be necessary to avert an ecological and economic catastrophe. Between double and ten times the presently available personnel and equipment is needed, and they are needed now.

People here have become cynical. There have been suggestions that Obama wants to use the oil spill as a “teachable moment” in his effort to pass his cap and trade energy legislation. And there are even darker intimations, the suspicion that something else must be afoot. If the spill had occurred in Long Island Sound, say, or San Francisco Bay—or in Nantucket Sound with oil lapping at the beaches of Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard—would there be this indolent a response from Washington?

So far, the effort to contain the spill has been pathetic. Oil washes up, and after a while a truck arrives with a cleaning crew hired from distant states, who mop-up or shovel it into plastic bags that may or may not get picked up later. They then return to sit under a tent until the next call comes or, as has happened in a few cases, a sheriff arrives to arrest them on outstanding warrants. Meantime, fleets of college kids using daddy’s fishing boat are being paid up to $2,000 a day to tool around looking for oil. 

Each morning seems to bring a new fool’s errand. On June 18, for example, the U.S. Coast Guard apprehended a dozen oil-skimming barges in the midst of performing their duty, and shut down their operations for the rest of the day in order to determine if they were carrying the proper number of life preservers and fire extinguishers. If the Coast Guard was so worried about safety, why not simply take a big pile of life preservers and fire extinguishers out to these craft and hand them around, so that the skimmers could keep at their essential job?

But that is not the way government operates. At least not this government, which has created a perfect storm of bureaucratic and regulatory gridlock around the Deep-water Horizon disaster. Whatever is done to prevent the oil from coming ashore must be approved by the EPA, OSHA, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Coast Guard, and a host of lesser bureaucracies.

Just a few days ago, a large slick of oil several hundred acres in size was allowed to enter Mobile Bay and hover in the lee of Gaillard Island, one of the largest Brown Pelican rookeries in the United States. According to a spokesman for BP, “None of the 135 boats working out of Dog River, or the 54 boats working out of Fairhope, had the training to handle the oil.” It seems oil skimming or booming requires taking courses and passing tests given by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. -Otherwise you run the risk of being arrested.

Same goes for trying to save oiled birds or other wildlife. Federal permits—which can take up to three years to process—are required, and violators are subject to arrest, fines, and jail. So if an oiled mallard washes up on shore, best leave him be and call the proper authorities to scrub him down with Dawn soap, never mind if he dies before they get there.

Some brave souls are resisting this nonsense. A couple of fire chiefs from the Magnolia River and Fish River communities in Alabama got tangled up in five weeks’ worth of red tape just to bring in equipment to block the oil from getting into their rivers. “They can arrest me and Jamie if they want to,” one of them said, “This is the biggest damn mess I’ve ever seen.”

Fixing the oil leak at the bottom of the gulf is, understandably, not something the U.S. government could be expected to do very well. So the Obama administration put the Coast Guard in charge of overseeing BP’s efforts, as well as the containment and cleanup operations. But the president has been careful to distance his administration from the operation and any blame attached to failure, while never losing an opportunity to remind the public that it is all BP’s fault and that they must be responsible for fixing it, cleaning it up, and paying for the mess. 

The world has watched the excruciating process unfold and learned strange new expressions such as “Top Hat,” “Junk Shot,” and “Top Kill.” Nothing worked until finally some sort of contraption was lowered over the leaking well, which now captures much of the oil. But why did this all drag out so long, with weeks passing in between BP’s various attempts to stem the flow? Apparently BP would wait until one effort failed before starting another, instead of having everything in place for a new attempt as soon as they gave up on the last. What were our leaders thinking?

All the while, a gargantuan mass of oil has been accumulating in the Gulf of Mexico—not as a monolithic slick, but in many forms. It comes sometimes as thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, of foamy fingers of “orange mousse” or as a sheen or as tarballs or in thick brown globs or pods of oily slab hundreds of acres (or even miles) wide. Day and night it drifts out there, twisting and turning amorphously with the wind, tides, and currents, and washing ashore from Louisiana to Florida—soiling, stinking, killing. And what were the responsible parties doing all this time—those institutions that are supposed to be protecting citizens from this kind of nightmare? From all appearances, they were doing squat!

Two months after the well blowout and the start of the great leak, plans for keeping the oil offshore remain hopelessly inadequate. The so-called “response” could comprise wonderful material for a new series of Keystone Kops movie shorts. Consider this recent newspaper account of BP’s chief operating officer Doug Suttles touring oil-fouled beaches: 

Suttles later flew over heavy [oil] sheens on Perdido Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. He expressed frustration that there was no way for pilots [of spotter planes] to communicate with skimmer boat captains working on the Gulf surface and direct them to areas thick with emulsified oil. “We’ve got to address that. We need to get the skimmers to the oil,” Suttles said.

Say what? These people have known for two months there was a giant oil slick forming out there, bound to come onshore, and haven’t figured out how to connect the scout planes with the skimmer boats? Haven’t they ever heard of RadioShack?

Aside from the so-called “dispersants” that BP has been spraying to dissipate the oil, the two main tools for keeping the stuff off the shores are boom and skimmers. (The dispersants themselves were an occasion for a hissy-fit between BP and the EPA, which first approved them, then in response to complaints by scientists, rescinded the approval, then gave BP a deadline to quit using the dispersants, then changed its mind again and huffily reapproved them.)

Boom comes in various forms—large ocean boom, smaller containment boom, absorbent boom—but not nearly enough of it has been available on the Gulf Coast. Alabama governor Bob Riley was infuriated when, after his office secured a dozen miles of hard-to-come-by ocean boom to protect Mobile Bay, he was summarily informed that the Coast Guard had confiscated it for use in Louisiana. 

But the most egregious scandal of all is the lack of skimmer boats to remove the oil from the water before it hits land. A few weeks ago, at the height of tourist season, as oil began washing up on beaches in Alabama, the Coast Guard announced that the best way to deal with the problem was to let the oil wash ashore and then clean up the beaches once the tide went out. That tactic proved sadly wrong. A story in the June 20 Mobile Press Register was accompanied by photographs of the vast layers of oily goo that had collected on the bottom in the shallows many yards out from the beaches, killing everything it settled on, and ruining swimming and wading for everyone. Apparently the Coast Guard claimed it was easier to clean up the beaches than to fight the oil before it landed because it lacked enough skimmers. 

Right after the disaster struck, 13 oil producing nations around the world, plus the U.N., offered the services of their dredges and large skimming ships, capable of removing hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil. They were turned down by the Obama administration because of the Jones Act, a piece of labor union-inspired legislation that forbids foreign vessels or foreign crews from working in U.S. waters. Republican legislators have called for President Obama to waive the act as President Bush did during the Katrina disaster, but so far he has declined.

The lack of skimmer vessels becomes more critical each day. All the boom in the world cannot contain an oil spill without something to quickly skim it up. Waves, wind, and current soon push the oil over or under the boom. When that large slick was allowed to enter Mobile Bay, promises were made by BP and the Coast Guard that the mouth and other entrances would be protected by skimmers. Part of the slick went 25 miles north to the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, one of the largest wetlands systems in the nation. There were no skimmers available to deal with it.

According to the Coast Guard there are 400 skimmer vessels working along the affected coast—which, depending on how its measured, is somewhere between 500 miles (the linear measure) and 5,000 (if you measure every cove and creek). There are said to be 2,000 skimmers available in the United States. Gulf Coast residents are wondering just what the other 1,600 are doing. Apparently many of them are required by government regulation to remain right where they are in case of emergency. The mayors of a number of small towns along the coast are seeking to purchase their own skimmers instead of relying on the effort by BP and the government, but that leaves open the danger of government regulators insisting on weeks of training and testing before they can be put to use. When the oil is upon you, it is not a matter of weeks, but of hours, even minutes. The cleanup effort is drowning in the proverbial sea of red tape. The interesting contradiction here is that the entire response is turning into one of the greatest arguments against government regulation that could possibly be imagined.

If BP’s relief well is successful and the leak is plugged, and if an armada of skimmers is built up to work round the clock and manages to keep the shores mostly clean then, barring a hurricane, the oil out in the gulf will probably degrade and/or evaporate naturally and the emergency will have passed. But make no mistake, these are big ifs.

Late on Father’s Day, I walked out to Julep Point, a peninsula jutting into Mobile Bay from which, on a clear day, you can see Dauphin Island, a dozen miles south, and the gap at the mouth of the bay where Admiral Farragut cried, “Damn the torpedoes.” Beyond that, out in the great gulf itself, a bank of dark rain clouds was tinged pinkish-gold, backlit by the setting sun. Out there, too, was the oil, upwards of 80,000 square miles of it, rocking silently on the waves. I grew up here on the coast and had the bay and the gulf beaches and the miles of river delta to enjoy. I wonder if that will be true for my 11-year-old daughter. There are many others here like me who gaze into a lowering future, and do not like what they see.

Winston Groom is the author of numerous novels and histories, including Forrest Gump (1986). His most recent book is Vicksburg, 1863 (Alfred A. Knopf).


Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 18 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers