Chief Obama, Seeing Smoke, Didn't Buy Fire Truck

While fault for the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico clearly belongs to private entities, chief among them BP Plc and Transocean Ltd., responsibility for the resulting damage is shared by an incompetent government. More than one presidential administration deserves blame, but the lion's share goes to President Barack Obama's.

Last year, a similar well blowout occurred in the Timor Sea off the coast of Australia. That didn't stop drilling advocates in the U.S. from arguing that the chance of such a calamity happening here was close to zero. I wrote then that the environmental tragedy in the Timor Sea made those assurances "about as reliable as a subprime mortgage."

For the sea creatures and humans affected by the Deepwater Horizon spill, it's too late to fix our response readiness.

At the very least, wouldn't you expect the U.S. government to develop an action plan based on the Timor Sea scenario? Think again. The Obama administration, by all indications, continued to assume that such a spill couldn't happen here. As a result, the U.S. was so unprepared for the Gulf spill that it had to borrow equipment from Mexico and hire a hodgepodge fleet of fishing vessels to assist relief efforts.

The result is the catastrophe we now see. Fishing fleets have been grounded. Beaches are empty, or emptying, except for the occasional carcass. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration last week reported the deaths of 220 sea turtles, with another 223 being treated for oil-related injuries.

It's hard not to lose your temper while considering what a well-conceived national emergency plan might have averted.

Surface Skimmers

It could have relied in part on specially designed skimmers, some of which resemble large automated mops that are placed in contaminated water, then wrung out into containers. The technology has advanced rapidly in recent years.

A 2004 test for the Norwegian Coastal Administration evaluated several types of oil skimmers. It found that one model, by Foilex Engineering AB of Sweden, gathered oil at a rate of 44 to 82 barrels per hour, depending on wave conditions and oil type.

Even using the conservative estimate of 44 barrels per hour, that skimmer would be able to remove more than 1,000 barrels of oil per day from a body of water. And Foilex now has another model with twice the capacity, according to the company's website.

How nice it would have been, starting on day one of the Gulf disaster, to deploy machines that, at least on paper, could each soak up 2,000 barrels of oil in 24 hours. A fleet of state- of-the-art skimmers might have made an enormous difference if put to work rapidly, before the oil had spread. At that rate, it would have taken roughly a dozen of these to suck up the oil at the same rate it was spilling, assuming perfect conditions.

Dollar of Prevention

There is, of course, a litany of imperfect conditions in the current disaster. So perhaps many more than a dozen would be needed. But we could in principle have a fleet of skimmers, with boats to carry them, ready to scramble to a spill. And this sort of fleet would be cheap compared to the untold-billion-dollar impact of the Deepwater Horizon spill.

Yes, BP is skimming the Gulf waters, among its varied efforts to clean up the oil. And yes, I've argued that the Obama administration has built a disturbing record of intruding on private industry. But just as small-government conservatives can believe government should buy the fire trucks and run the fire departments, we can see the common-sense wisdom in government being in charge of massive oil spills.

Consult Costner

Other complications, such as the large amount of oil collecting below the surface, would make cleanup difficult even for skimmers. Again, the government is best positioned to think this through before an emergency is at hand. I'm sure Kevin Costner would be happy to brief the White House on what he says is an innovative machine that separates oil from water.

For the sea creatures and humans affected by the Deepwater Horizon spill, it's too late to fix our response readiness. The time for that would have been in the wake of the Timor Sea spill in August 2009--around the time, coincidentally enough, when the Obama administration was doling out billions of dollars for economic stimulus.

We can say with certainty that another disaster will eventually occur. The question is, will we be ready when it does?

Kevin Hassett is a senior fellow and the director of economic studies at AEI.

Photo credit: Flickr user arbyreed/Creative Commons

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