Policy Documents

Obama Administration Neglected Oil Spill Containment Plan

James M. Taylor –
May 4, 2010

The massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill has moved within 20 miles of the Louisiana coast, and to hear Obama administration officials tell it, “from Day One” they have been utilizing every weapon available to contain the spill. Now word is emerging that the administration at first dismissed the severity of the spill and then chose not to utilize its most effective weapon in controlling it.

On April 23, three days after the accident that caused the oil spill, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs responded to reporters' questions by saying, “I don’t honestly think it opens up a whole new series of questions, because, you know, in all honesty I doubt this is the first accident that has happened and I doubt it will be the last.”

That doesn’t sound like all hands were on deck, fully focused, employing every available weapon “from Day One.”

Even so, an environmental catastrophe may have been quickly and easily averted if the administration had implemented a federal oil spill response plan drawn up by the Clinton administration in 1994. The Clinton administration formulated an “In-Situ Burn” plan calling for the immediate use of fire booms to contain major spills in the Gulf of Mexico.

Fire booms are inflatable devices that establish a floating perimeter around an oil spill. The boom burns off the surface oil before it can escape the perimeter. A single boom, which costs in the neighborhood of $200,000, could have contained and eliminated all or nearly all of the oil from the BP accident had it been quickly employed.

Despite the existence of the Clinton administration’s spill-containment plan, federal officials did not have an oil boom ready when the BP accident occurred. Moreover, the Obama administration waited until April 26 – six full days after the accident occurred – to inquire about purchasing one. By that time, the oil had already spread far beyond a feasible fire boom perimeter.

A week after the spill occurred, Mary Landry, the federal on-scene coordinator for the spill, said the government considered burning the oil, but feared environmental “trade-offs.” Landry conceded that fire boom testing has been “effective in burning 50 to 95 percent of oil collected in a fire boom,” but the administration feared containment fires would emit a “black plume” of soot and particulates into the air.

Now, shorelines throughout the Gulf Coast and the Atlantic seaboard may pay the price.