Offshore drilling disaster: Have past oil spills foretold the current BP oil spill?

Officials never anticipated an offshore drilling accident on the scale seen off Louisiana and responders didn't conduct exercises for an oil spill so far out and so deep.

Alex Brandon/AP
Offshore drilling disaster: A pod of Bottlenose dolphins swim under the oily water of Chandeleur Sound, La., on Thursday.

As the oil rig burned and thousands of barrels of the thick crude gushed into the Gulf of Mexico on that day in April, Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad Allen soon realized there weren't enough tools available to respond to the catastrophe.

There wasn't enough dispersant readily available to break up the huge oil slick quickly growing on the water's surface. There were too few other oil-recovery options, like controlled burns and crude-eating micro-organisms, to stop the environmental and coastal devastation that could follow. There wasn't enough research completed to offer new spill recovery technologies that could help pick up the slack of limited resources.

Allen watched it all unfold nearly eight years ago to the day that the current oil spill disaster threatened even greater peril in the Gulf. In 2002, he played the role of commander over a mock oil disaster about 10 miles (16 kilometers) off the Louisiana coast, a staged exercise used to help the government prepare for such disasters.

IN PICTURES: Louisiana Oil Spill

Today, Allen is an admiral and is in charge of the government's real-life response to what was once the unthinkable and something earlier drills didn't anticipate — a deadly explosion on a BP PLC-operated rig and thousands of barrels of oil a day spewing from a deepwater well.

The 2002 exercise offered valuable insights, including how to set up command and response teams, and how to coordinate the response among private and public officials, Allen said. But he and others are haunted by things not learned, not anticipated and not followed from the earlier drill.

Officials never anticipated an accident on the scale seen off the Louisiana coast and responders didn't conduct exercises for an uncontrollable spill so far out and so deep. And BP didn't file a plan to specifically handle a major oil spill from an uncontrolled blowout at its site because the federal agency that regulates offshore rigs changed its rules two years ago to exempt certain projects in the central Gulf region, according to an earlier Associated Press review of official records.

Responders desperately need new and better ways to contain and clean up the oily mass spreading each day over the Gulf's open waters, and they need a seemingly endless supply of dispersant to help break it up. These are facts discovered in 2002 and problems facing responders today.

A lack of government-supported research means tests are being conducted hastily now to determine whether oil dispersants can be used safely a mile deep in the Gulf waters.

The 2002 drill found that government budget rules and strict regulations "have inhibited research, development, test and evaluation of response technologies," according to the report produced after the exercise. For example, some policies limit spill recovery tests to small simulation tanks that make it difficult to adequately test how new products will respond to actual spills in the open water.

Not conducting such experiments means responders must now wait for the results of federal testing before moving forward with a plan to pump oil dispersant deeper into the waters, closer to the actual leak.

Inexperience with deepwater oil spills means no one knows whether a 100-ton concrete dome being lowered to the seafloor will help stop the gushing oil, something never done before at such depths.

The 2002 report raised concerns about the limited availability of new technologies to respond to spills, like controlled burns of oil patches, and limited understanding of how best to use them. Responders to the current spill have struggled to use the controlled burns during rough weather and waters, trying the idea at first but later limiting its use during clear skies and calm seas.

Dispersants have been available, and responders have dumped more than 253,000 gallons (958,000 liters) so far, including about 150,000 (568,000 liters) on Wednesday. But the chemical's manufacturer is scrambling to keep up with demand, ramping up production to as much as 70,000 gallons (265,000 liters) a day.

Supplies jumped from about 55,000 gallons (208,000 liters) available at the spill response site late Wednesday to more than 317,000 (1.2 million liters) available Thursday night, officials said.

The 2002 exercise discovered "there is limited access to adequate quantities of dispersants and delivery vehicles, which are essential to effective oil spill response," the followup report stated.

A "significant stockpile" of dispersants helped the current response in the early days, Allen said.

Allen said he's confident there will be enough dispersant. "We've gone back to the supply chain to make sure," he told reporters in a recent briefing.

Many of the problems responders face in today's oil spill were spelled out in the mock disaster staged eight years ago, known as the 2002 Spill of National Significance Exercise. Such exercises include participants from multiple local, state and federal agencies and the private sector.

That exercise and several since also led to repeated calls for an increase in the current $1 billion limit on emergency funding from the federal Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund for accident responses. The recommendation wasn't acted on until days after the BP rig explosion, when a Senate bill was introduced that would remove the limit and provide immediate access to money for cleanup.

The 2002 drill, staged from April 23 to April 25 that year, envisioned an explosion on a make-believe ExxonMobil platform near Timbalier Bay, a favorite night fishing spot nestled in the underside of the boot of the Louisiana coast. Surrounding waters are so shallow that some areas average only 4 feet (1.2 meters) in depth.

The scenario: The rig explosion sent as much as 3,000 barrels of crude oil pouring into the Gulf and the uncontrollable discharge would take 30 days to control.

The real, current catastrophe started on April 20, with an explosion on a British Petroleum rig about 50 miles (80 kilometers) offshore that eventually sank and triggered a gush of as much as 5,000 barrels of crude a day. The oil is flowing out of a deepwater pipe 5,000 feet (1,500 meters) down.

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