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Gulf oil spill: Can the Coast Guard cope?

April 29, 2010 |  2:50 pm

Marylandry Coast Guard officials on Thursday sought to assure reporters that all that can be done to fight the oil flow is being done.“Our end goal remains permanently securing the well,” said Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry, the federal on-scene coordinator, at an afternoon briefing.

Landry explained the efforts. New is the use of underwater dispersants – for the first time in U.S. history at the depth of 5,000 feet, she said. That technique, if given final approval, would join other techniques such as the use of booms and of controlled burns. Landry called the underwater technique “novel,” saying it had been tried before, but not at the this depth. The idea is to get the dispersant closer to the leak, faster, she said. The well is about a mile down.

Officials said they are prepared to sink a relief well and to consider a second relief well, if needed.
“Nobody, absolutely nobody, wants to get this oil flow stopped more than I do,” said Doug Suttles, a chief operating officer for BP. He said he has contacted other industry experts for their ideas in containing the spill.

One source of confusion is the increase in the estimated size of the spill from 1,000 barrels to 5,000 barrels a day. Suttles said the earlier estimate was based on the best information at the time but it was revised as new information from imaging, for example, became available.“We didn’t actually change our response effort,” he said, adding that the company has aggressively pursued containment.

In a telephone interview from California, David Helvarg, author of “Rescue Warriors: The U.S. Coast Guard, America’s Forgotten Heroes,” said “The Coast Guard is like the Marines. They go in fast and early. But they don’t have the assets to maintain a long campaign."

That is why, Helvarg said, the Obama administration has brought in backup from the Pentagon to wage battle at sea against the growing spill. “The Coast Guard is the size of the New York Police Department, not the size of the Marines – even if they act like them,” he said. It can fulfill its federal duty as coordinator, he said, but an oil slick of this magnitude will be too much to corral with floating booms, burns or other techniques.

“There isn’t enough boom to capture a 200,000-gallon a day spill and protect the Louisiana’s wetlands, beaches and bayous,” Helvarg said. “It’s unclear if they can burn enough oil. What, are they going to set the whole gulf on fire? It’s going to get ugly.”

Helvarg, president of the Blue Frontier Campaign, an ocean advocacy group, said this incident is a reminder that the industry-touted safer technology often comes after a mishap in what he calls “frontier waters.” The explosion came in a well being well sunk nearly a mile below the ocean surface -- waters which not too long ago were considered out of reach.

“The Arctic is the next frontier,” Helvarg said, noting that the Obama administration has been handing out exploratory oil drilling leases off Alaska’s north coast. “The industry doesn’t even pretend it knows how to clean up a spill on or under sea ice.”

With pictures of burning oil slicks emerging from the gulf, the World Wildlife Fund called on President Obama to declare a moratorium on any new drilling in Arctic waters and cancel oil leases issued during the Bush administration for the Beaufort and Chukchi seas.

William M. Eichbaum, the fund’s vice president for arctic and marine policy, said the crisis in the gulf is unfolding despite being blessed with mild weather and sea conditions.

 “As terrible as this situation is, the impacts would be far worse should this spill have taken place in the harsh and remote environment of the Arctic, where violent storms and thick ice would make it nearly impossible to effectively respond to even a minor oil spill,” Eichbaum said.

--Michael Muskal and Ken Weiss

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Photo: Rear Adm. Mary Landry of the U.S. Coast speaks during a press briefing on Thursday, April 29, 2010, at the Shell Robert Training and Conference Center in Robert, LA about the oil spill that resulted from the explosion and collapse of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico near the coast of Louisiana. Credit: AP Photo/Derick E. Hingle