Napolitano praises response efforts so far to gulf oil spill

Nick Snow
OGJ Washington Editor

WASHINGTON, DC, May 18 -- While conceding that the ongoing crude oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has posed unusual and unexpected challenges, US Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet A. Napolitano told a US Senate committee on May 17 that federal and industry responses have been aggressive and impressive so far. Cleanup and containment of this spill will provide important new information for future responses, she and other witnesses suggested.

“With every incident that occurs, lessons are learned,” Napolitano said at the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee’s hearing. “I think that’s one of the reasons why the president has been so very clear that further deepwater drilling permits are going to be stopped until this can be investigated and assurances can be made that things have been changed so we don’t have a duplication of the Deepwater Horizon incident.”

The US Coast Guard has conducted a spill of national significance exercise every 3 years since the Exxon Valdez tanker ran aground in 1989 in Alaska’s Prince William Sound as well as frequent regional and local drills, noted Rear Adm. Peter V. Neffenger, deputy incident commander in the latest federal oil spill response. “I think they’ve paid off,” he told committee members. “I think the response this time clearly is superior to what we did in that spill more than 20 years ago.”

“Clearly, if you’re actually cleaning up oil, there’s an expertise you develop that can’t be developed any other way,” said Napolitano. “I think we have capability now and we have a lot of people who have looked at this over an extended period. There’s capability in private industry, with respect to the Oil Spill Response Corp., and they’re required to maintain expertise. There also are a number of ongoing smaller spills every year that do provide opportunities for training people and responding.”

Asked by Sen. Susan M. Collins (R-Me.), the committee’s ranking minority member, to assess the oil industry’s response to the spill from the deepwater well in the gulf, Napolitano said she would reserve judgment.

BP moved quickly
“I will say that BP’s leadership—its American head and its chief executive—were in Washington very quickly,” she continued. “They immediately assumed responsibility, as the responsible party should have. They have been in the command centers and staging areas. They have been working in terms of cleanup, hiring local fishermen to help deploy boom for example. Whether they should have had more or different equipment there or more and different kinds of expertise around the rig in the exact hours around the sinking and explosions would be premature of me to say.”

“I’ve seen the response firsthand, and I’ve talked to the men and women who are working on the frontlines,” said BP America Inc. Chairman and Pres. LaMar McKay, who followed the two federal officials. “There is a deep and solid resolve to contain this spill, to fight it offshore, to fight it at the shoreline, to clean it up, and to deal with the economic impact it has caused, and will cause.” He reiterated BP’s commitment as the incident’s responsibility to pay for cleaning up the spill and mitigating its economic and environmental impacts, and outlined several approaches to stopping the leaks on the gulf’s floor 5,000 ft below the surface.

The committee’s chairman, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), said he appreciated the response effort but continued to express concern that technology for controlling spills and blowouts at such depths is inadequate. “As I look at the response plan you were requested to file, it concerns blowouts at the surface and nothing in the plan that addresses the critical question of how to stop a leak 5,000 ft underwater,” he told McKay. “So as you look back at this and see that your company has been jolted, why wasn’t more done as more deepwater drilling was done to deal with the consequences of an accident that could occur at that depth?”

McKay replied: “This is a unique and unprecedented event. In the subsea, as you point out, there are no major regulations dealing with intervention plans. I think as we look at this accident, we’ll need to look at the kind of subsea intervention capability plan that could be available. I would like to say that the subsea intervention resources that have been brought to bear have been tremendous. We’ve got three deepwater rigs working simultaneously in this unprecedented situation.”

Lieberman also pressed Napolitano and Neffenger on government response capabilities for dealing with an subsea oil plume—reported to measure 10 miles long, 3 miles wide, and 300 ft thick in certain spots—he said reportedly was forming, as well as the possibility that the gulf’s currents could carry spilled crude significant distances.

Unverified, inaccurate
“First of all, we have to be careful right now about what is being assumed about the undersea plume,” Napolitano responded. “Obviously, we need to continue to watch the undersea plume that develops vs. the spill at and just below the surface. That process is being looked at by a consortium of government scientists. I think [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] Administrator Jane Lubchenco responded very strongly to some of these early statements, which had not been verified and seem to be inaccurate.

“Secondly, EPA has approved the use of undersea dispersants,” she continued. “This is very novel, and it’s done in a very controlled way because each time we do something like that, you have to explore the kind of environmental tradeoffs that are being made. EPA has a very rigorous protocol for how that will be done and continuous monitoring that will happen. Those undersea dispersants are being injected, and have been injected over the last few days.”

Neffenger said the USCG is keeping an eye on the spill relative to the gulf’s loop current, and that NOAA has developed sophisticated models to project its possible path. “Right now, it’s about 40 or 50 miles south but we are preparing for potential impacts around the southern Florida coast,” he said. “I will say that the sort of oil which will be picked up in that current will be heavily weathered, and you’re likely to see things like tar balls form on the beaches which are relatively easier to manage and clean up. This is not a good thing. I think it will be a more manageable piece there than what we’re currently looking at out in the gulf.”

“We’re actually treating the loop current as if it was its own coastline,” Napolitano added. “If we were to see that the oil was really beginning to move toward the loop current, we would begin doing things in terms of booming and dispersant as if the loop current itself was a piece of the coast.”

Lieberman was not satisfied. “As we watch the company and the government try to desperately figure out how to close this well, we obviously have to conclude that people weren’t prepared to deal with this kind of problem,” he said. “As the company said quite honestly, it capped wells before, some perhaps with failure of the BOP, but never at this depth. So why shouldn’t I, the committee, or anyone else conclude that in fact we were not prepared, either the company or the permitting authorities, to deal with this kind of blowout of a deepwater well?”

Napolitano emphasized that the government is probably only about midway through this spill’s response, and that the emphasis remains on stopping it, containing it, and dealing with its environmental and economic impacts. Neffenger said that having to deal with leaks in 5,000 ft of water has made the response unusually challenging.

“The second complication is that you have maybe 5,000 ft of riser lying like spaghetti across the sea floor on which there are a number of different leaks,” he said. “That has complicated the nature of how to best approach it. Then there were questions about how much pressure there actually was. If you had that thing on the surface, I think you would have seen a much more rapid ability to come to a closure on it. I think it’s the distance below the surface that makes it so challenging.”

Contact Nick Snow at

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