BP Oil Spill: Is it time for the Pentagon to take over?

The BP oil spill relief effort lacks a clear command-and-control structure, senators said at a hearing Friday. Some suggest that greater Pentagon involvement would help.

By , Staff writer

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    Sen. Bill Nelson (D) of Florida talks about the BP oil spill containment effort Sunday on the CBS show 'Face the Nation.'
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Should the Department of Defense take command of the response to the BP oil spill?

Some federal lawmakers and local officials are continuing to push such a move to help overcome what they see as a tangled and ineffective spill cleanup command-and-control structure.

At a Senate hearing on Friday, Sen. Ben Nelson (D) of Florida expressed frustration with the state of the Gulf response task force, saying that in one 90-minute period last week, officials gave him three different estimates of the number of ships deployed off the Florida coast to block drifting oil patches.

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“The finest command-and-control capability in the world is the United States military,” said Sen. Bill Nelson (D) of Florida on Friday at a Senate hearing on the effects of the oil spill. “You have got to have somebody with a clear chain of command in charge.”

Local Gulf leaders at the hearing, held by a Senate Homeland Security Committee ad hoc panel, agreed that something needs to be done to streamline the response team’s decision-making process.

At the front lines of the spill fight, the information flow is haphazard and promised resources don’t always show up, they said.

“I still don’t know who’s in charge,” said Plaquemines [Louisiana] Parish President Billy Nungesser at the Friday hearing.

Right now it takes as long as five days to get a question to the National Incident Commander, Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, said Mr. Nungesser. President Obama should appoint someone with “the authority and guts to make decisions,” he added.

Calls for the military to take charge of the spill fight have reverberated through the halls of Washington almost from the moment the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and burned on April 20.

The Pentagon itself is not wild about the idea. The Defense Department to this point has rejected the notion that things would run more smoothly if it played bigger role in the Gulf.

In general, defense officials make three points in this regard:

The military is already in charge. The Coast Guard is one of the armed forces of the US, they note, and should be held in the same high regard as the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines. Mr. Allen, the National Incident Commander, must work with BP to marshal resources and get things done, and any such bifurcated effort is likely to produce some dissatisfied customers, officials note.

The Guard and Reserve are heavily involved in the Gulf. Hundreds of reservists and state National Guard troops are laying booms, flying helicopters, and otherwise contributing front-line manpower to the fight against the spreading oil. Two C-130s from an Ohio reserve unit have been converted to allow them to spray dispersant on oil-slicked waters, for instance. The Louisiana state Guard this week finished sandbagging eight breaches on Pelican Island in Plaquemines Parish, and installed six miles of a shoreline protection system near Venice, Louisiana.

BP knows more about oil than the Navy does. The military has lots of equipment, but it is oriented toward combat, not clean-ups. The US Army and Navy have little in the way of specialized knowledge that would add anything to the fight to stop the spill, said the nation’s top officer on May 31.

“We’ve looked at that continuously since the leak started, whether or not we would have submersibles that could go do this,” said Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “And the fact is the best technology in the world with respect to that exists in the oil industry.”

Proponents of a larger military role say it is not just the Pentagon’s material resources, but its attitude, that’s needed. What’s lacking in the Gulf now is a hierarchy that takes orders and executes them and processes information quickly and efficiently.

“Whether the Coast Guard should stand down for the Navy and the Army, I don’t know . . . but the command structure is broken,” said Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) of Louisiana on Friday.

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Editor's note: The photo caption on an earlier version of this story got Sen. Bill Nelson's first name wrong.

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