Testifying Before Congress

On July 21, 2010, I testified before the Senate Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard as witness in a hearing entitled “Turning Ideas into Action: Ensuring Effective Clean-up and Restoration in the Gulf”. The first panel of witnesses included an official from the Coast Guard and one from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). What struck me about their testimony was how little these agencies have been able to do to advance the technology we use to address oil spills, despite the fact that they are relatively frequent in the Gulf. When asked about technology development, the official from the Coast Guard proudly pointed to in-situ burning as a great advance that had been made in response efforts, ignoring the relative ineffectiveness of that method at dealing with large amounts of oil and the obvious potential environmental problems associated with burning crude oil.On my panel, witness after witness discussed the lack of sufficient funding or a streamlined process for federal approval of new technologies, even in the face of the current BP Horizon Disaster. There is some hope that this will change, as the next day the committee was beginning markup of the SHORE Act, which is intended to address many of the obstacles to development of more effective and safer technologies for addressing oil spills — which are inevitable as long as we continue to drill for, import, and process oil.I’ve included my full testimony below.TESTIMONY OF CYNTHIA SARTHOU, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR,GULF RESTORATION NETWORKBEFORE THE U.S. SENATE COMMITTEE ON COMMERCE, SCIENCE, AND TRANSPORTATION FOR THE SUBCOMMITTEE ON OCEANS, ATMOSPHERE, FISHERIES, AND COAST GUARDJULY 21, 2010I am Cynthia Sarthou, the founding Executive Director of the Gulf Restoration Network. I have been working on ocean and coastal issues for over three decades, with the last 18 years spent in the Gulf. The Gulf Restoration Network, or GRN, is a fifteen year-old environmental advocacy organization exclusively focused on the health of the Gulf of Mexico. Our mission is to unite and empower people to protect and restore the natural resources of the Gulf for future generations. Our primary efforts have focused on ensuring healthy waters, protecting and restoring coastal wetlands, and defending marine fisheries and ecosystems. Our board members hail from all five Gulf States. Since our founding in 1994, the GRN has followed activities related to oil and gas development in the Western and Central Gulf of Mexico, attending hearings and filing comments. Throughout that time period, I continually heard from representatives of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement, (“BOEMRE” ) formerly the Minerals Management Service (“MMS” ), and various oil companies that my concerns about the potential impacts to marine species and habitats from oil and gas exploration and development were negligible. The reason given was generally that the industry was so far advanced in its technological ability and its technology so fail safe that a major accident could never happen. As the BP drilling disaster has shown all too clearly, they were wrong. I. Research and Development and Its Effectiveness in Preparing for the BP Horizon Disaster. What has been equally evident is that BOEMRE failed, as did Congress, to invest in research and development intended to improve oil spill response capabilities because of their belief that an oil spill of any significant magnitude was improbable. As a result, the response to the BP Horizon disaster has involved antiquated technologies, such as skimming, burning and the use of dispersant. Because of this lack of preparedness a significant amount of oil has spread across the waters of the Gulf and onto Gulf state beaches and coastal wetlands. After the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989, the Minerals Management Service (MMS), the Coast Guard and NOAA, had reason to believe that research into oil spill response technology was necessary to improve oil spill response efforts. In fact, Section 2761 of the OPA established the Oil pollution research and development program. However, monies needed to support the research under Section 2761 were not appropriated. Since 1995 the MMS has spent between $6 and $7 million annually on research , however, little, if any, of that research focused on developing new oil spill response technologies that could more safely and effectively contain oil either at the surface or subsurface. The MMS did conduct research on the effectiveness of booms , burns , dispersants and skimmers , looked into the best possible weather conditions to apply the respective measures , published many studies showing the extreme difficulty in capturing and stopping oil spills from blow out preventer failures in deep depths, and researched the formation of subsea oil plumes. However, even though dispersants are an approved method of addressing oil spills, neither the MMS nor EPA has completed research regarding the long-term impacts of chemically dispersed oil on the marine ecosystem. Yet, in response to the BP Drilling Disaster, they have approved the application of approximately 2 million gallons of dispersant – the largest amount applied in U.S. history. Additionally, the MMS has not required that oil companies have sufficient amounts of other existing oil spill technologies in place to respond to a worst-case scenario oil spill. Instead, the MMS trusted oil companies to have the resources available and in place. As the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster illustrates, the companies are grossly unprepared to deal with a spill the magnitude of the current disaster. If the companies had sufficient booms and skimmers in place prior to the BP-Deepwater Horizon disaster, they could have prevented more of the oil from spreading along the Gulf coast.While the MMS did conduct research into certain aspects of oil spill response technology, the response to the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster illustrates that BOEMRE failed to complete necessary research on or support development of new oil spill response technologies. Our research has revealed that BOEMRE has received little, if any, funding to verify the effectiveness of technologies developed by the private sector to address oil spills or support research and development of more effective oil spill response technologies. This is not to say that technologies have not been developed. GRN’s staff received hundreds of calls and emails, as did BP and all of the state and federal agencies involved, pressing for the use of new oil spill response technology. However, because there had been no research and approval of these technologies prior to the BP disaster, the agencies were faced with the impossible task of trying to effectively sort out the truly effective technologies, approve and begin use of them to address oil already spewing from the BP Horizon well. With the exception of the higher profile media worthy technologies, such as that pressed by Kevin Costner, this led BP and the Coast Guard to simply revert to the less than effective, but better known, techniques of booming, skimming, burning, and dispersing.If MMS had fulfilled its duty to increase the effectiveness of oil spill response technology, more oil would have been captured near the site of the blowout and the impacts associated with the Deepwater Horizon’s would probably be much less severe.II. Public and Scientist Involvement in Federal Government ResponseThe Federal Government’s response efforts have largely excluded members of the public and the independent scientific community. From the beginning, even obtaining information about response planning and deployment of equipment and manpower has been difficult. Additionally, the FAA imposed a 3,000 foot requirement on all over flights, which severely limited monitoring of response efforts or verification of impacts to coastal barrier islands and the like. Similarly, the Coast Guard recently issued a rule prohibiting the public from coming within a “safety zone” which encompasses 65 feet of any response vessels or booms on the beach or the water. The Coast Guard recently modified the rule to allow representatives of the press to obtain credentials that allow them within the safety zone.Although Administrator Jackson and Secretary Lubchenco have met with local groups throughout the Gulf to discuss their concerns, the knowledge of local organization’s on existing contamination or others issues that could affect water sampling have not been solicited or incorporated into sampling plans. Equally concerning, EPA and NOAA have not required BP to make the monitoring data that they have collected available to the public. This significantly impairs the ability of independent and academic scientists to perform detailed analyses of the impacts of this disaster.Similarly, in bird rescue efforts, private non-governmental organizations, such as the Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education Center (Texas), although having significant experience with the rescue of brown pelicans and other birds, have been excluded from the rescue process efforts. These groups have asserted concerns that there has been no effort by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USF&WS) and BP’s contractor, Tri-State Bird Rescue & Research (Tri-State), to share best techniques, discuss innovative approaches, and realistically evaluate changing needs and break-downs in the effort. Similarly, the U.S. F&WS and Tri-State rescue team currently lacks input from the non-profit groups and rescuers with the most extensive field rescue experience on the most-refined field capture techniques. As a result, there is a concern that bird mortality is higher than it might otherwise have been.ConclusionTo ensure that the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement and the Coast Guard are better able to address the next major oil spill, they must greatly expand their support of research and development and push the oil industry to adopt the best possible oil spill response technology. The Congress must greatly increase the funding available for necessary research into the efficacy and environmental impacts of developing technologies. Moreover, oil companies should be required to invest significant monies on (1) production of oil spill response equipment, including the construction of “caps” and the like needed to stop the release of oil from deepwater wells should a blowout occur, in advance and have them at the ready in each region, and (2) oil spill response technology research and development to ensure that we move into the twenty-first century in terms of our response capability. Finally, national contingency planning for oil spills must incorporate better methods for involvement of the public and independent scientists in oil spill response activities.

Scroll to Top