The US Coast Guard response to the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe was the largest US Coast Guard response ever undertaken.
If you had a $10 billion operating budget to carry out 11 main missions for the United States, ranging from maritime safety, marine security, environmental protection and ice operations to drug enforcement, migrant interdiction and aids to navigation, could you plainly and concisely answer the question: “What do you do?”
Admiral Bob Papp, 24th Commandant of the US Coast Guard, has a crystal clear idea of what his organisation does.
“We ensure the safety, security and stewardship of our ports, waterways and coasts,” Admiral Papp says with great confidence.
“Or simply keeping bad things from happening to ships, bad things happening to people, bad things happening to the environment or bad things in our ports and waterways from people with bad intentions. This guides us in achieving our 11 main missions. I am proud to say all 42,000 people on active duty, 7,000 members of the Reserve, 8,000 civilian employees and 30,000 Auxiliary volunteers know these and individually how they contribute to our missions.”
However, when you consider that the Coast Guard’s jurisdiction covers 3.4 million square miles of US waters, these financial and human resources seem rather undersized. The Deepwater Horizon disaster, though, is a good case in how the Coast Guard effectively uses flexible people, assets and authority to meet any challenge.
Just drilled for a spill
As Admiral Papp explains, “The Coast Guard has pre-designated each Captain of the Port as the federal on-scene coordinator for oil spills. This is the person who initiates the immediate response and represents all federal government agencies for the response activities. Of course, the Deepwater Horizon tragedy quickly challenged the resources and capabilities of the Gulf Coast based captains of the port, sector offices, and even the Eighth coast guard district. However, we practice for these difficulties routinely and had, in fact, just drilled for a spill of national significance in March 2010. When the rig exploded and caught fire, our immediate priority was search and rescue. Sadly, 11 men lost their lives on that tragic day, but together with commercial resources, we rescued 115 people.
“Although the earliest indications were that this was mainly a fire and explosion, almost simultaneously, the Coast Guard launched the casualty and spill response. We established incident command centers in New Orleans and Houma, LA, which became the most active and largest command centers. Then one in Mobile, AL, Houston, TX, St. Petersburg, FL, and Miami, FL. Throughout the response, we had an average of 7,000 people in the command centers, in boats, on the beaches, and in aircraft.”
Ultimately, the response to the Deepwater Horizon disaster was the largest the Coast Guard had ever faced. It required the shifting of needed people and assets to the Gulf of Mexico and, for sure, this placed additional burdens on all units around the rest of the service. Admiral Papp gives the response a grade of A for effort, but knows there are areas where the Coast Guard can improve.
So while the response is still being evaluated and there will be recommended changes, he does have a couple of initial observations.
“First,” Admiral Papp begins, “The Coast Guard and government agencies worked very well together. We were familiar with each other, our responsibilities and ways of working. We were less familiar with the companies involved, but we quickly learned to work together. This was critically important because the expert knowledge of the deep ocean drilling technology resided within these companies.”
Control of the response equipment also had some interesting complexities. Admiral Papp continues, “The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 rightly placed the responsibility of maintaining response equipment on commercial industry within the US. There are laws that require industry to maintain sufficient response equipment in the ports. Even though the Coast Guard could issue a special dispensation to temporarily relieve industry of this legal obligation, and there was a strong will and desire of industry to shift response equipment to the Gulf, the Coast Guard could not temporarily remove the contractual requirements that each response company had to keep that equipment available locally. The Coast Guard did shift 12 buoy tenders, which are the only government owned vessels with oil skimming capability, to the Gulf and we were also fortunate to receive global assistance.”
The Coast Guard’s broad responsibility for environmental protection includes environmental regulations. In the US, this requires constant balancing of federal laws with specific concerns and needs of each state. Then, consideration of the interests of industry, including international commerce, as well as environmental groups seems to place the Coast Guard in an untenable position. “This just underlines the importance for us to be the fair arbiter of all of these issues with industry, environmental groups, and states,” responds Admiral Papp.
Towards performance based regulations
The Coast Guard also issues regulations to ensure maritime safety. As Admiral Papp notes, “To be sure, we have prescriptive regulations, such as many of the lifesaving and fire protection regulations, but we are moving more towards performance based regulations.
“A good example is the ballast water regulations: There is new and emerging technology for ballast water treatment.
We believe that any rigid regulation would slow advancement of new technology, and more importantly, not really address the invasive species problems. So, we chose to describe what must be achieved or the performance level. I know some think that the technology must be developed first, but I really don’t agree that will happen reasonably quickly without a performance standard. This is nothing new to the automobile industry, where manufacturers are required to meet minimum mileage performance standards or build cars that withstand crashes.”
Finally, when asked about his biggest challenge and what keeps him awake at night, Admiral Papp grounds his thoughts on the three main functions of the Coast Guard: maritime safety, security and stewardship.
“My biggest challenge is to make sure that the Coast Guard has an adequate number and balance of resources for our main functions and 11 missions. We don’t know where, or when, the next earthquake or hurricane will happen, but we know they will, and we need to be able to respond to these, just as much as we need to carry out law enforcement activities or keep up with our regulatory responsibilities,” he says.
“At the same time,” Admiral Papp adds, “what keeps me up at night is ensuring our future capabilities. Today, the Coast Guard has 12 378-foot high endurance cutters and 14 210-foot medium endurance cutters that are over 40 years old. Our 270-foot medium endurance cutters are over 20 years old. It is becoming more expensive and difficult to maintain these assets at the proper reliability and availability levels.
“We need a programmed approach, and funding, to replace these assets. Clearly, the Coast Guard needs this, and I also want to point out that a recapitalisation programme will lead to a more vibrant shipbuilding and repair industry and jobs.”
And the Admiral’s last words: the Coast Guard’s motto, “Semper Paratus,” or Always Ready.