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Turning an accident into a catastrophe

Posted by Richard on June 28, 2010

In a Financial Post column, Lawrence Solomon provided much more detail about the Dutch offers for help in the Gulf oil spill that I posted about ten days ago. It's clear now that the Obama administration has turned an accident into a catastrophe that could have been averted (emphasis added):

Some are attuned to the possibility of looming catastrophe and know how to head it off. Others are unprepared for risk and even unable to get their priorities straight when risk turns to reality.

The Dutch fall into the first group. Three days after the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico began on April 20, the Netherlands offered the U.S. government ships equipped to handle a major spill, one much larger than the BP spill that then appeared to be underway. “Our system can handle 400 cubic metres per hour,” Weird Koops, the chairman of Spill Response Group Holland, told Radio Netherlands Worldwide, giving each Dutch ship more cleanup capacity than all the ships that the U.S. was then employing in the Gulf to combat the spill.

To protect against the possibility that its equipment wouldn’t capture all the oil gushing from the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, the Dutch also offered to prepare for the U.S. a contingency plan to protect Louisiana’s marshlands with sand barriers. One Dutch research institute specializing in deltas, coastal areas and rivers, in fact, developed a strategy to begin building 60-mile-long sand dikes within three weeks.

… The U.S. government responded with “Thanks but no thanks,” remarked Visser, despite BP’s desire to bring in the Dutch equipment and despite the no-lose nature of the Dutch offer — the Dutch government offered the use of its equipment at no charge. Even after the U.S. refused, the Dutch kept their vessels on standby, hoping the Americans would come round. By May 5, the U.S. had not come round. To the contrary, the U.S. had also turned down offers of help from 12 other governments, most of them with superior expertise and equipment — unlike the U.S., Europe has robust fleets of Oil Spill Response Vessels that sail circles around their make-shift U.S. counterparts.

Why does neither the U.S. government nor U.S. energy companies have on hand the cleanup technology available in Europe? Ironically, the superior European technology runs afoul of U.S. environmental rules. The voracious Dutch vessels, for example, continuously suck up vast quantities of oily water, extract most of the oil and then spit overboard vast quantities of nearly oil-free water. Nearly oil-free isn’t good enough for the U.S. regulators, who have a standard of 15 parts per millionif water isn’t at least 99.9985% pure, it may not be returned to the Gulf of Mexico.

When ships in U.S. waters take in oil-contaminated water, they are forced to store it.

The Americans, overwhelmed by the catastrophic consequences of the BP spill, finally relented and took the Dutch up on their offer — but only partly. Because the U.S. didn’t want Dutch ships working the Gulf, the U.S. airlifted the Dutch equipment to the Gulf and then retrofitted it to U.S. vessels. And rather than have experienced Dutch crews immediately operate the oil-skimming equipment, to appease labour unions the U.S. postponed the clean-up operation to allow U.S. crews to be trained.

There's more. Far superior Dutch dredging vessels aren't being permitted to build protective berms. Instead, the Dutch have been asked to train Americans to do the work. The Dutch are perplexed.

To be fair, Solomon noted that the US also turned down Dutch help with the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989. "Not invented here" syndrome and an inability to get priorities straight aren't unique to the Obama administration. Although I'd argue that in the wake of this unprecedented accident, they've taken insane environmentalism, protectionism, and loyalty to their labor union base to new heights. Or depths, depending on your perspective. 

(HT: Carpe Diem)

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One Response to “Turning an accident into a catastrophe”

  1. Hathor said

    Then what is a catastrophe? Can you tell me with certainty that if everything had been in place that all the oil would be soaked up or reclaimed and the leak would have been stopped.

    The volume of that oil could be larger than the state of Hawaii. If the leak isn’t stopped, then what?

    Lets hope there isn’t an huge earthquake in the Gulf before this mess ends.

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