Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Lets Talk Oil Spill and Coast Guard

First, why do we need a Coast Guard? Just what does it do? The Coast Guard does quite a lot! Right now, today, for example, it must manage the government response to the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill, pursue drug traffickers, rescue fishermen and sailors, guard our nation’s coasts and enforce all those fishing, sailing and environmental regulations.

The Coast Guard and other agencies can dip into emergency funds whenever there are emergencies. The rest of the time, they are strapped for cash and, in fact, the Coast Guard needs money. The service is due to cut 1,100 uniform positions and drop some missions.

Let’s change and not play the usual Washington version of the budget game, you know, the one where you wait until after a disaster strikes before funding to prepare to deal with it. Why not create a fund, which the Coast Guard and other federal agencies can use to purchase the equipment and manpower necessary to be prepared in advance? Proactive instead of reactive disaster management, what a novel idea! Why not fund the Coast Guard so it can have the capabilities it needs before disaster strikes? Rather than cutting Coast Guard funding or trying to hand the ‘Coastie’ functions to the Navy, which is neither trained nor equipped for these missions. The Obama administration should end the cuts it has in train, including the rather shocking elimination of some of the Coast Guard’s catastrophic spill equipment.

Washington is finger pointing at anyone and everyone who might be responsible for the crisis caused by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Congress is having hearings on whom to blame. Meanwhile, we are seeing entertaining presentations from politicians on the technical issues of oil drilling and safety. What we are not having is a good debate about how to improve the safety and security of deep-sea drilling and, more to the point, ways to shape a more effective public-private partnership in managing the challenges of deep sea offshore drilling.

Offshore oil and gas fields will be developed by the private sector. The private sector is where the tools for oil drilling are going to come from and where the oil will be refined and delivered in support of economic growth and development. The government does not have to do any of this. It gets to sit back and tax the revenues. Its obligation is the protection and stewardship of the oceans, coasts and the people in the labor force.

The administration is going to reform the Minerals Management Service, the federal agency responsible for licensing offshore drilling. They are going to split the agency so that the revenue receiving side and the regulatory side are separate and this is being done to ensure that the risk of conflict of interest goes down. A better plan would be to figure how the Coast Guard can be more effectively resourced in working with the Minerals Management Agency so that oversight and preparation for disaster intervention is fully resourced and staffed.

Why do we need to worry about all this? Is there a great chance of another oil leak? Lets look at the stats. The eighth USCG district, the one providing for Gulf oil security and stewardship contains 6,500 oil and gas wells; 4,000 oil or gas production platforms and over 800 of which have full-time crew support. There are 116 Mobile offshore drilling units 51 of which are stacked, some which are crude and some are not. There are 30,000 workers offshore on any given day. This infrastructure accounts for 30 percent of our domestically produced oil and 23 percent of our domestically produced natural gas. The only good news on this front has been that the President has taped Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Thad Allen to stay on as the Oil Spill front man after he retires later this month.

And the challenges will be growing. A senior official underscored the deep offshore oil and gas enterprise. “The companies are going to be drilling and working so much farther offshore and deeper; the offshore energy sector is a huge game changer field technology-wise and what they’re doing now it pales in comparison two years ago. They’re not only going 10,000 feet deep; they’re also drilling deeper than before.”

We need a public discussion of the needs of the Coast Guard and other agencies to make this sector work more effectively. We need to fund the programs more effectively, and we could focus on funding more capabilities for the MMS and the Coast Guard out of the funds generated from offshore drilling. And we need to do this now because they are going deeper and farther than before, and we need to be ready and better prepared so the next time it is a “spill” and not a “disaster”.

Today's Fun Picture

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