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Over the last eight years, the U.S. government has conducted four major drills to prepare for a massive oil spill, the results of which foreshadowed many of the weaknesses in coordination, communication, expertise, and technology that have plagued the federal response to the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

According to interviews and after-action reports obtained by The Center for Public Integrity and ABC News, the training exercises conducted in 2002, 2004, 2007, and just this past March caused federal officials to express concern about a host of issues. Most prominent among them:

  • coordination and communication between the Coast Guard and the Department of Homeland Security, especially involving the process for naming a National Incident Commander (NIC) to take charge of the crisis;
  • a slow or inaccurate flow of information from the industry, particularly caused by companies’ desire to protect proprietary information and officials’ tendency to exclude industry representatives from the government’s command center; and
  • a lack of expertise and modern technology for closing a spewing oil well leak and containing a slick through controlled burns and dispersants.

The nation has been gripped by scenes of a massive oil slick spreading across the Gulf of Mexico since the BP-leased Horizon Deepwater rig exploded April 20 and sank two days later — leaving behind a massive oil leak of 5,000 barrels of crude a day.

Since then, the government has faced questions about why it took so long to declare the spill an emergency, why it didn’t use Pentagon planes sooner to spray dispersants and why it lacked a ready supply of specialized booms to contain and burn the growing oil slick.

And both industry and federal officials have been forced to essentially invent, on the fly, untested technological solutions — such as concrete and steel containment domes and rubber well plugs — in an effort to contain an epic oil leak spewing 5,000-feet below the Gulf waters.

The lack of available technology, however, was forewarned in multiagency reports following the training exercises — reports that cautioned the oil industry would not spend the money to develop new containment solutions unless mandated by the government. The recommendation went unheeded, according to officials and experts.

“Without requirements in place to require use of new response technologies they will not be developed and deployed adequately,” said an after-action report from the spring 2002 drill that simulated an oil leak from a sunken rig in the Gulf of Mexico.

U.S. officials say the drills taught them many important lessons that improved their response to last month’s accident. But they acknowledged that problems related to communication, coordination and technology persisted, even during the drill in late March that was carried out less than four weeks before the accident.

“Every exercise you do, you come out with the question of whether your communication skills are up to the challenge,” Coast Guard Lt. Kelly Dietrich said in an interview.

But Dietrich said the Coast Guard and its federal allies have made steady strides through a series of training exercises and don’t deserve some of the criticisms that have been raised by lawmakers and residents in the Gulf.

“We always go out with full force,” she said. “It always seems … slow because most people aren’t involved in the preparatory work.”

Experts maintain, however, that the government does deserve a hefty share of the blame, especially in regard to ensuring that both safety and containment technology kept pace with the oil industry’s expansion of drilling in deep waters. They said inflatable booms were an ineffective tool.

“The technology that’s being used on the surface is over 30 years old,” said Jerome Milgram, a professor of marine technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “I can say this. I don’t see any practical effect for putting out booms when the sea conditions are such that the booms are totally ineffective.”

Yet, BP’s “worst case” scenario for a huge oil spill in the Gulf relies heavily on being able to boom and skim a half million barrels a day, according to the oil spill response plan the company filed with federal regulators.

That is “either fraud, fantasy or forgery,” said Carl Pope, chairman of the Sierra Club, the environmental lobby. “These are not serious plans, and yet the government accepts them as a basis for drilling.”

The Obama administration acknowledged Tuesday that the Minerals Management Service, the Interior Department agency in charge of offshore drilling, needed to do a better job in its oversight of safety. As a result, the administration has decided to divide the agency into two offices: one focused on managing oil leases and the other focused on safety and preparedness.

“The job of ensuring energy companies are following the law and protecting the safety of their workers and the environment is a big one, and should be independent from other missions of the agency,” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Tuesday.

The oil industry disputes the idea that not enough technology has been brought to bear, noting that resources have been shepherded from all over the world to deal with the accident. “I believe there was quite a bit of equipment available in the Gulf of Mexico,” said Richard Ranger, a senior policy adviser for the American Petroleum Institute.

Complications in naming a national incident commander

he most recent Spill of National Significance (SONS) drill was conducted March 24-25 in New England, simulating a response to an oil tanker leaking 18 million gallons of crude after a collision off the coast of Maine. The drill was designed to fully test the concept of a unified response coordinated by a National Incident Commander (NIC), Coast Guard officials said.

Though the training was fresh in the minds of the Coast Guard and the Department of Homeland Security, the Obama administration waited nine days to declare the BP accident a Spill of National Significance and 11 days to announce a National Incident Commander. By that time, tens of thousands of barrels of crude had leaked into the Gulf of Mexico.

Ironically, the incident commander named May 1 for the BP oil spill was Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, who played the same role back in 2002 during the drill in the Gulf of Mexico. That exercise warned that there was still confusion about how and when to name a NIC.

“Details of how the NIC accomplishes its roles and responsibilities (e.g., maintain situational awareness, manage public information/outreach, manage critical resources, etc.) have not been established, leaving a great deal of uncertainty and wariness within the response community,” the government’s 2002 after-action report warned.

A 2004 drill found the same weaknesses, saying federal officials “and industry partners need a clearer understanding of the” incident commander structure.

Dietrich said the training exercise in New England this past spring was specifically designed to address the prior concerns about a national incident commander.

“None of them [past exercises] until this last year tested the role of the NIC, because we had not defined the roles and responsibilities,” said Dietrich, who works as a specialist in oil and hazardous substance responses in the Coast Guard’s Office of Incident Management and Preparedness and helped coordinate the 2010 training exercise.

“So we just spent the last year preparing for what has happened. And because of that planning, the transition went very well,” she said.

Dietrich acknowledged the 2010 drill prompted a healthy debate about when to name a NIC. “There was a lot discussion. Some would say it should be done right away and some would say you should wait a few days,” she said.

Asked why there was an 11-day delay in naming a NIC for the current accident, Dietrich said, “They waited until they felt like the function was necessary.”

Dietrich said the pace of the declaration, however, didn’t slow the Coast Guard’s initial response. “A slow notification process does not mean the process is slowed down for deploying physical resources,” she said.

Communication gaps foretold

When the government declares a Spill of National Significance (SONS), it activates additional federal resources beyond the traditional Coast Guard deployment. And it is supposed to consolidate decision-making across all levels of government under a National Incident Commander (NIC), a concept that was refined after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks created a new Homeland Security structure.

The Obama administration has blamed its delay in declaring the current Gulf accident a SONS and naming a spill commander on poor communication between the government and BP regarding the start and size of the leak. Officials said it took days, for instance, for the government to learn from BP that the spill might be as large as 5,000 barrels a day, a notification that finally prodded the government into a higher level of action.

Such communication problems, however, were portended in the four major training exercises that preceded the accident, records show.

“A process for ensuring that all parties (federal, state, industry) at all levels (port, NIC, NRT) involved in coordinating a response to a SONSprovide consistent, accurate information to the media, public and elected officials was not apparent,” the after-action report from the 2002 exercise concluded.

The 2007 after-action report specifically warned that industry officials were being excluded from some key discussions with the government at the disaster site, leading to possible chokeholds on critical information.

“Some industry members may have been excluded from participating in the Unified Command but were still responsible for funding the tactics being decided at that level,” the 2007 report cautioned. The drill that year simulated a response to multiple oil leaks from fuel storage facilities in the Mississippi River region caused by a major earthquake and a subsequent tornado.

The 2007 report recommended that federal officials work with the oil industry to “incorporate multiple industry entities into a single unified command.”

Dietrich said the government has tried to address all the recommendations in the after-action reports to better prepare for major spills. For instance, she said, Shell Oil Co. was asked to sit at the table to prepare and operate the 2010 exercise to help improve the ability of federal workers to communicate with the industry.

The government’s response went “much smoother then if we hadn’t done the exercise,” said Dietrich.

Despite progress, she said the 2010 exercise showed there was still more room to improve communication, especially between the Coast Guard, which performs the front line work, and the Department of Homeland Security, which makes a SONS declaration and names an overall commander or NIC. Last month’s accident marked the first time the government formally declared a Spill of National Significance.

“We need to continue to build relationships with DHS and our other partners,” Dietrich said.

The 2007 exercise focused on communication between state and federal officials, as well as between agencies. The report concluded that there was no unified system for sharing information among all agencies and noted that there was “confusion regarding who was responsible for acquiring [needed] resources for the field.”

Activating Pentagon help, spraying dispersants cited as concern

The Obama administration also has received some criticism for waiting to deploy Pentagon planes and ships to drop chemical dispersant to help contain the widening oil slick. Those military vessels and aircraft weren’t activated for more than a week, eventually getting to the site around April 29.

Yet, prior reports after spill exercises warned about the need to marshal Pentagon resources.

While the government’s reliance on Navy salvage ships “in combating a discharge is fairly well established, the process for obtaining other DOD resources is less clear,” the 2002 report warned.

The report added that none of the processes in place at the time of the 2002 training exercise “appears to be sufficiently developed to allow for the rapid request, approval and deployment of DODassets.”

The report specifically cited concerns about slow acquisition of dispersants.

“A limited availability of dispersant delivery aircraft negatively impacts the response,” it warned. In addition to dispersants, the report noted that state-of-the art mechanical and non-mechanical recovery equipment, such as oil pumping systems, “are not generally available.”

The 2007 report also warned that agencies at all levels were “not fully aware of capabilities … available outside their own agencies.”

Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr C.T. O’Neil said Tuesday the agency’s on-scene commander had the ability to request the Pentagon planes even before the SONS declaration was made, but waited until she felt they needed them.

“Those assets were requested when the federal on-scene commander decided they were necessary,” O’Neil said.

The reports do detail signs of progress, too. For instance, the 2004 and the 2007 after-action reports warned that the government lacked the basic ability to prioritize which areas needed to be protected first from an advancing oil spill, a key decision when fragile ecosystems are threatened.

“There is no standardized or coordinated approach to prioritization of key critical infrastructure issues across all levels of government,” action item No. 4 in the 2007 report warned.

But Dietrich said the repetitive training has since helped federal responders triage the most sensitive environmental locations for protection and to target the deployment of booms to protect them first.

Congress had own warning about preparedness

Lawmakers in both the House and Senate have quickly launched investigations into whether the government was prepared, and whether it acted quickly enough to protect the Gulf Coast. Lawmakers have dispatched investigators directly to the scene and have summoned federal officials and BP executives to hearings that began Tuesday in the Senate.

And while much of the finger-pointing will be aimed at government and industry, the documents show Congress had its own warning about potential weaknesses in oil spill preparedness.

An August 27, 2009, report by the Congressional Research Service (CRS), for instance, warned that many key federal agencies have lost significant experience for dealing with a massive spill since the last catastrophic event, in 1989, when the oil tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground and fouled the waters and shores of Alaska.

“Because the nation has not been forced to respond to a major oil spill for such a long period, some have voiced concern that the nation might have lost the expertise and institutional knowledge necessary for quick and effective response action,” the report said.

The 2009 report to Congress cited some of the after-action reports for SONS preparedness exercises as its source, including the 2007 report warning that response providers “did not appear to have even a basic knowledge of the equipment” used in spill situations.

The CRS report went so far as to suggest Congress should monitor the oil training exercises and provide its own oversight to preparedness..

Senators and House members have also expressed concerns about the fact that an oil company’s liability for damages it causes to business, tourism and livelihoods is capped at $75 million. That, too, was flagged in the CRS report.

“Congress could further increase the liability limits,” the report advised, or it could “make owners of oil liable for spills under certain conditions.”

Some lawmakers have proposed in recent days to raise the liability limit for economic damages to $10 billion.

What’s next?

The Coast Guard’s Dietrich said the after-action report for the 2010 training exercise has not yet been finalized, pre-empted instead by a real tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico.

She said the major findings likely will present ways all agencies — especially the Coast Guard and Homeland Security — can better communicate under difficult circumstances.

Experts also debate whether there will be more sweeping changes made to the way federal agencies approach safety and prepare for disasters.

“It remains for readers to decide if there’s enough direction coming to industry from government,” API’s Ranger told the Center. “I would respond that there has been a long history of collaboration, mutual study, information sharing between industry, government and the third parties. It has led to incremental improvements, to steady progress in our capabilities to respond to oil spills in the water.”

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