By Thad Allen
When I was a junior officer fresh out of the Coast Guard Academy in 1971, a crusty old warrant officer told me that an idea of mine was in the “too hard to” do locker. The implication was that some problems are unsolvable and thus get banished to innovation purgatory. I invoked that line last May at the memorial services for retired Chief Warrant Officer Bernie Webber, who almost five decades ago accomplished what is regarded as the greatest small-boat rescue in Coast Guard history. In February 1952 Webber and his three crewmen maneuvered a surf rescue boat over the Chatham Bar on Cape Cod in gale-force winds. They rescued 33 crew members from the stern of a tanker that had broken in half in a storm. Bernie taught us all that day how to create the art of the possible where none appears to exist, and gave 33 people back their lives. He had opened the “too hard to” locker.
Our country encountered this sort of seemingly impossible-to-open locker on April 20. The explosion, subsequent fire and ultimate sinking of the offshore drilling rig Deepwater Horizon led to the biggest oil spill in U.S. history. Eleven lives were lost. This summer, we watched the uncontrolled discharge of tens of thousands of barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico every day. The disaster caused economic deprivation and put at risk an entire way of life.
A “fail-safe” system had failed; there was no human access to the source of the oil. Despite the mobilization of countless resources from the start, the response was criticized by some as inadequate and feeble. Much as Tip O’Neill told us about politics, it turns out that all oil spills are local.
Yet four months later, the landscape and seascape have changed. We now know that 53,000 barrels were likely escaping each day from the well, but the well was capped on July 15. And while nearly 5 million barrels were released into the gulf, we are beginning to understand what happened to it.
We also know we mobilized the largest public- and private-sector disaster response in this nation’s history. This summer we did things that have never been done before: We employed 7,000 vessels of opportunity, a waterborne militia that has no precedent. We took control of the air space in the Gulf of Mexico to improve flight safety and more effectively employ air surveillance from the same base that defends North America from air attack. We mobilized the largest number of oil skimmers and deployed more containment boom than ever before in our country. In the process, emergency regulations authorizing the relocation of response equipment from across the country were issued in a matter of days.
It was more than just marshaling forces on the water and on the shore. Nearly every agency of the government was involved, and not only the ones you would expect, such as the Coast Guard, the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, but also the Defense Department, the U.S. Fisheries and Wildlife Service, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and others.
We stood up a special science team, led by Energy Secretary Steven Chu, who oversaw every technical aspect of the well-kill efforts. The science team also got us a precise flow rate and an oil budget that estimates where the oil went.
Led by the president, the first lady and the vice president, administration officials have made more than 75 trips to the region; all had responsibility for some portion of our response.
We responded with government effort at all levels that moved beyond the tactical issue of oil on the water to address socioeconomic effects, public health, long-term environmental impact, and responsive near-term emergency services and support. Again, we have done things on a scale with no precedent. Did we learn things along the way? Absolutely. We should have done some things sooner, like taking control of the airspace and transitioning from boom to skimmers.
Is there more work to do? Certainly. Our estimates suggest a quarter of the oil that leaked could still be in the water. What’s left is breaking down, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a threat, and we won’t stop going after it until it’s gone. Do laws and regulations need to be revised? Of course. Do we have all the answers to long-term effects to the environment from the oil spilled or dispersants used? Not yet, and we should not add to the cost of this spill by failing to learn these things.
It hasn’t always been pretty, but we have opened the “too hard to” locker. We are poised to finish this response and move to long-term recovery. It has been one of the more consequential exercises in adapting the elements of national power together with local government and the private sector to deal with problems of unprecedented complexity. No one is claiming victory or “mission accomplished” at this point, nor should we. We should, however, recognize what has been done.
Thad Allen is a retired Coast Guard admiral, and he is the national incident commander of the BP oil spill. He originally wrote this commentary for The Washington Post.