Friday, April 30, 2010

Gulf Coast Oil Spill - Early thoughts on the response

Almost two weeks into what promises to be one of the largest spills in US history, questions are beginning to come up about the decision timeline around the response.  Given the response went through a standard command and control model any of the actions can be considered against the standard operating procedure and the assumptions that feed into that operating procedure.  Below are some early thoughts based on these two categories.  Please note these aren't based on inside knowledge and may prove incorrect once more details come out.

  • Search & Rescue needs to be separated from environmental response at the outset:  Usually, marine incidents feed up into one centralized command center.  Anyone in this command center is going to focus immediately on the possibility of saving lives as they should.  In parallel, though, a separate structure should immediately be set up to focus on the oil spill.  That way, both events get full focus.  This approach usually should happen; what will be telling is how quickly this separate structure was set up and in place.    
  • Faulty assumptions likely exacerbated the spill impact:  The first assumption was based on a perceived understanding of oil rig design that there should have been a safety that stopped the flow of oil.  This assumption likely meant that during the first flurry of conversations, experts thought there would be no danger of a large scale spill.  The second assumption was about the size of the leak which went from 5K to 10K barrels a day.  Given the dispersion of an oil spill is based on basic variables like amount of oil, wind direction and current, the models of how big the spill would get were likely wrong.  
These assumptions seem to have lead to a delay in recognizing the size of the problem and the subsequent deploying of other resources like commercial vessels and the US Navy.  Unfortunately, this also means that the spill is exponentially larger (by area) and harder to contain than if the severity had been recognized and responded to at the outset.

How will this play into the future?  The standard operating procedures should be modified to include checks into the assumptions that exacerbated this spill.  There will be debate about first response actions (e.g., what happens when the first notice of an oil spill is received).  Given we don't exist in a world of unlimited resources, every spill can't be treated like the "big one" before all the facts are known.  However, there will likely be considerable debate about what the first response should look like in the future and whether it needs to be bolstered.  

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