Bureaucratic Blindness

This is a follow-up to my opinion piece in Forbes the other day.  Remember, this outcome is not somehow preventable by having "our, smarter guys" in charge -- it is an inevitable result of the information and incentives of government organizations.

Three days after the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico began on April 20, the Netherlands offered the U.S. government ships equipped to handle a major spill, one much larger than the BP spill that then appeared to be underway. "Our system can handle 400 cubic metres per hour," Weird Koops, the chairman of Spill Response Group Holland, told Radio Netherlands Worldwide, giving each Dutch ship more cleanup capacity than all the ships that the U.S. was then employing in the Gulf to combat the spill....

In sharp contrast to Dutch preparedness before the fact and the Dutch instinct to dive into action once an emergency becomes apparent, witness the American reaction to the Dutch offer of help. The U.S. government responded with "Thanks but no thanks," remarked Visser, despite BP's desire to bring in the Dutch equipment and despite the no-lose nature of the Dutch offer --the Dutch government offered the use of its equipment at no charge. Even after the U.S. refused, the Dutch kept their vessels on standby, hoping the Americans would come round. By May 5, the U.S. had not come round. To the contrary, the U.S. had also turned down offers of help from 12 other governments, most of them with superior expertise and equipment --unlike the U.S., Europe has robust fleets of Oil Spill Response Vessels that sail circles around their make-shift U.S. counterparts.

Why does neither the U.S. government nor U.S. energy companies have on hand the cleanup technology available in Europe? Ironically, the superior European technology runs afoul of U.S. environmental rules. The voracious Dutch vessels, for example, continuously suck up vast quantities of oily water, extract most of the oil and then spit overboard vast quantities of nearly oil-free water. Nearly oil-free isn't good enough for the U.S. regulators, who have a standard of 15 parts per million -- if water isn't at least 99.9985% pure, it may not be returned to the Gulf of Mexico....

The Americans, overwhelmed by the catastrophic consequences of the BP spill, finally relented and took the Dutch up on their offer -- but only partly. Because the U.S. didn't want Dutch ships working the Gulf, the U.S. airlifted the Dutch equipment to the Gulf and then retrofitted it to U.S. vessels. And rather than have experienced Dutch crews immediately operate the oil-skimming equipment, to appease labour unions the U.S. postponed the clean-up operation to allow U.S. crews to be trained.

  • Michael

    This is entirely understandable. Just imagine the enormous effort needed by the EPA to figure out what a cubic meter is.

  • sean

    I think there are much more nefarious motives than just perfection being the enemy of the good. Yesterday the US finally relented and decided to let foreign flagged ships help in the clean up. That was the same day Obama met with a bipartisan group of senators on the climate and energy bill. When the meeting was done it was clear that the climate part of the bill had almost no chance of passage. Is this just a coincidence or did this administration drag its feet to enhance its leverage on a climate bill? It certainly fits a the same pattern that Senator Kyl encountered on improving the border fence or using the EPA as leverage to get climate legislation passed.

  • Ignoramus

    "We're from the federal government and we're here to help."

    The Deepwater leak was foreseeable, given the Pemex Ixtoc leak in the Gulf of Mexico back in 1979. That leak went on for ten months and will likely remain larger than Deepwater.

    The Deepwater leak is about 150 million gallons. If you turned Yankee Stadium into a big pool it'd hold about 180 millions gallons. That's a lot -- but it suggests a problem that could have (and should have) been mostly contained with an all hands effort. The US uses over 800 million gallons of oil every day. The Gulf is actually a big body of water, with an average depth of about a mile -- 643 quadrillion gallons -- that's 6.43 x 10 to the 17th power.

    After Exxon Valdez, we enacted legislation that was suppose to deal with these things. It's proven an abject failure. There's a lesson in that.

    It's not just turning down the Dutch skimmers. The EPA regulations being cited say you can't discharge back into the Gulf unless it's 99.985% pure water. Because you can't meet that standard at sea, we're actually filling container ships at sea to bring oil-soaked water back to port, which seriously compromises the effectiveness of the effort. As of June 11 -- the most recent date I could find -- we've skimmed only about 2 or 3 million gallons of oil -- about five Olympic-sized swimming pools worth.

    ***
    David Axelrod was just on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Stewart ripped Axelrod over government incompetence.

  • Duracomm

    Media malfeasance allowed this spill to turn into a complete disaster.

    If they had done any reporting early on exposing obama's incompetent, inept spill response obama would have had to do something to avoid the complete political destruction of his presidency.

    But the best thing about being a democrat politician is you get the dominant media as a bonus prize for winning the election. They are happy to act as a free public relations organization for you.

  • http://herdgadfly.blogspot.com/ gadfly

    Here is the most unbelievable story of the Taiwanese tanker-turned-skimmer which can collect 500,000 gallons of oil per day ... and it has been tied up in drydock in Norfolk awaiting the EPA's test on whether or not the water returned to the ocean after separating out the oil is sufficiently free of oil to pass EPA standards. Honest I wouldn't lie about such stupidity. Ladies & Gentlemen, may I introduce you to the A-Whale. This sucker "stands 10 stories high, stretches 1,115 feet in length and has a nearly 200-foot beam. It displaces more water than an aircraft carrier."

    http://hotair.com/archives/2010/06/27/day-68-why-isnt-the-a-whale-in-the-gulf-yet/

  • Cardin Drake

    On a forum that I read, somebody stated
    "When evaluating a politicians actions and the question is between unimaginable incompetence and nefarious scheming, unimaginable incompetence is almost always the correct explanation."
    I have to agree with that, but this is so ridiculous, it makes you wonder.
    About the only power those in charge really have is the ability to cut through the red tape. On that basis, I can only say: Massive Fail. This reads like an Onion article: When can't use giant skimmers to remove the oil, even though they can, because when we put the seawater back, there is oil in it. We can't remove 100%, only 99%, so we choose to do nothing. Is this a freaking joke?

  • Pat Moffitt

    There may be perverse incentives at work- but it is not illogical for a career bureaucrat to say no. The only risk they have is not conservatively following the letter of the law. Even if it is found that the failure to approve the use of cleanup equipment caused immense damage-- there is zero risk to the employees making those decisions. In fact- the only risk is saying yes. A first step should be a new regulation that a crisis proclamation allows a single point of decision making with the ability to waive regulations.

    Also need to be aware that many of these bureaucrats do not understand the spill-- they often have no degree or experience with any of the technologies- they are simply trained to follow the regs. Most environmental permits take years to acquire so they probably think they are moving at breakneck speed.

    I still remember a day in the office when our chief engineer with 30 years design experience lost it while trying to explain to a 25 year old DEP reviewer -with a history degree- why he had chosen a particular pump. (DEP had to review all designs but their review was not to be assumed as an approval or that the design had met requirements. Never did figure out why a bunch of politically connected liberal arts majors were reviewing engineering designs- other than to collect fees and hire a political appointment.

  • Pat Moffitt

    There may be perverse incentives at work- but it is not illogical for a career bureaucrat to say no. The only risk they have is not conservatively following the letter of the law. Even if it is found that the failure to approve the use of cleanup equipment caused immense damage-- there is zero risk to the employees making those decisions. In fact- the only risk is saying yes. A first step should be a new regulation that a crisis proclamation allows a single point of decision making with the ability to waive regulations.

    Also need to be aware that many of these bureaucrats do not understand the spill-- they often have no degree or experience with any of the technologies- they are simply trained to follow the regs. Most environmental permits take years to acquire so they probably think they are moving at breakneck speed.

    I still remember a day in the office when our chief engineer with 30 years design experience lost it while trying to explain to a 25 year old DEP reviewer -with a history degree- why he had chosen a particular pump. (DEP had to review all designs but their review was not to be assumed as an approval or that the design had met requirements. Never did figure out why a bunch of politically connected liberal arts majors were reviewing engineering designs- other than to collect fees and hire a political appointment.

    My favorite was a client accused by DEP of aluminum leaching from the concrete pipe while it cured in the yard when it rained. They did not seem concerned that water would soon run continuously inside the pipe for the next hundred years. They set a standard of 1mg/l but unfortunately the natural soil was 80,000mg/kg Al. We sampled around the county and found numbers that exceeded 100,000mg/kg and the local river was 200mg/l during a rain event. Thinking we had shown how silly this 1mg/l standard was given that Al is the 3rd most abundant in the earth's crust- we were surprised to be accused of contaminating the entire county. And it just got too bizarre from this point on.

  • Duracomm

    One other point. Notice how the environmental community is nowhere to be found?

    The environmental communities complete lack of action on the obama administrations utter incompetence with the spill cleanup illustrates they mostly stand for two things.

    1. Electing democrats

    2. Collecting political power.

    Aside from that they are worse than useless.

  • Fred

    Death by a thousand bureaucratic insanities . . . is still death.

    Barry, meet George.

  • Tim

    @Duracomm: The reason that the environmental community "is nowhere to be found" is pretty obvious. The spill provides them enormous leverage over policy right now. Once Deepwater is capped/killed; they'll take over the adjenda. More wind and solar; less coal; no nuclear; higher CAFE requirements (but no corresponding carbon tax to drive the market); and, best of all, more high speed rail -- regardless of the practicality.

    Pat Moffitt is somewhat on point here, too. All the liability is on waiving or violating the rules. Saying no to Dutch or Tiawanese skimmers doesn't create a legal liability that saying yes does. But, at the end of the day; any proposal that empowers a government offical to somehow 'waive the rules' makes a mockery of the rules themselves *and* sets up people in government as having higher authority than the law. That's the path to abuse.

    What we really need is better rules, regulations and laws. Failing that; a Congress that could act fast enough to create specific legislation to carve out exceptions for this event.

  • Pat Moffitt

    Tim, "But, at the end of the day; any proposal that empowers a government official to somehow ‘waive the rules’ makes a mockery of the rules themselves *and* sets up people in government as having higher authority than the law. That’s the path to abuse."

    I suggested above as a first step new regulations that would empower -after a declaration of a state of emergency-a single point of decision making that could cut across agency lines and waive regulation as necessary for a period limited to the crisis.

    Regulatory agencies are not set up culturally or legally to handle emergencies.

  • LoneSnark

    Tim, I disagree. The knife should cut towards liberty as much as we can manage, even if it is arbitrary liberty. The President should have the right to wave any regulation at any time, even outside emergencies. Now, there should be rules with this as with all questions of law. If a regulation is waved, then it is waved for everyone. In other words, the executive can only wave laws, not modify them at will.

    This might require a Constitutional Amendment, but I'd be in favor of it. Imagine a Libertarian President winning the election and waving decades of legislative activity at will. Would be awesome.

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  • caseyboy

    The government institutes regulations, we go forward with our lives and then find out that the regulations or regulators didn't get the job done. So what is the political solution, more regulation, new bureaucracies and additional regulators. We need to start letting the market work to sort these things out. More regulation doesn't make us safe.

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