Just weeks after the oil spill crisis began to unfold in the Gulf of Mexico, the French foreign minister volunteered a fleet of oil skimming boats from a French company, Ecoceane. A month later, in early June, Ecoceane Chief Executive Eric Vial met with BP and Coast Guard officials to present the idea.
Ted Jackson, The Times-PicayuneSkimmers and prized because they are the primary means for attacking oil head-on and collecting it before it hits land.
But after that meeting, weeks went by with little contact as oil continued gushing into the Gulf. A frustrated Vial was able to get around the bureacracy last week only when his company sold nine of the oil collection boats to a private contractor in Florida, who could then put the boats to work.
Oil giant Shell was in negotiations to let BP use the Nanuq, a 300-foot oil recovery boat sitting idle in Seward, Alaska. But in recent weeks, BP declined to bring it to the Gulf.
"Nothing would prevent it from working right now in the Gulf of Mexico," said Curtis Smith, a spokesman for Shell Alaska. "It remains available in the event that BP reconsiders."
Everyone wants skimmers
As oil oozes inland, tainting marshes and fouling beaches, local response officials from Florida to Grand Isle for weeks have been begging for the oil-fighting tool that everyone wants but no one can get enough of: skimmers. They're the primary means for attacking oil head-on and collecting it before it hits land, yet local government agencies complain that the number of specialized skimming vessels out on the water is woefully lacking.
"We want all the skimming vessels in the world deployed," said Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser. "This is an oil spill bigger than anything we've ever seen. It's a national disaster. We're at war. If you were at war and in charge, would you deploy everything you had to win the war?"
Rusty Costanza, The Times-PicayuneSome skimming systems can be outfitted onto fishing or offshore supply boats. The basic idea is to separate oil from water and collect it on board for disposal.
There are a wide variety of skimming systems: Some boats are specially designed to suck oil or lap it up from the surface using brushes or belts; other skimming systems can be outfitted onto fishing or offshore supply boats. The basic idea is to separate oil from water and collect it on board for disposal. Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the national incident commander for the oil spill, acknowledged recently that "Skimmers are our critical mass right now. We need to put those wherever we can get them. And we want to get them from wherever they are available."
'Anemic' response criticized
But federal response officials have been pressed for more than a week to streamline U.S. maritime restrictions that would allow more foreign skimming vessels to be put to work on the spill. And the Coast Guard and BP have been taken to task for not bringing more available U.S. skimmers to the Gulf spill.
According to the latest numbers from BP, 433 vessels are collecting oil in the Gulf, but less than a third of those are specialized boats designed specifically for oil skimming.
On the Senate floor last week, Sen. George LeMieux, R-Fla., pointed to a Coast Guard map detailing more than 850 skimmers available in the southeastern United States -- and more than 1,600 available in the continental United States.
"We are literally talking about more than a thousand skimmers that are available, but we only have 400 - if this number is correct -- at work," LeMieux said. "It is hard to believe that the response is this anemic; it is hard to believe that there is this lack of urgency or sense of purpose in getting this done."
The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 requires regions to have minimum levels of equipment such as boom and skimmers, making it difficult for every oil-fighting resource to be directed to the Gulf of Mexico.
Allen acknowledged the hurdle last week, saying that there are "discussions we're having across the entire country where we have equipment that's out there as a requirement -- legal requirement to cover spill response of those areas -- and how we might free those up. That's a work in progress inside the administration right now."
Laws affect use of foreign equipment
Regarding international skimming vessels, Allen said earlier this month that the government would work to quickly process waivers of the Jones Act, a 1920 maritime law that promotes U.S. shipping interests. But he has downplayed the importance of the law in prohibiting foreign boats seeking to aid in the Gulf spill response.
The law prevents foreign crews and foreign ships from transporting goods between U.S. ports; in the Deepwater Horizon case, the "port" would be where the oil is collected offshore. Allen has said that many of the foreign-flagged boats are working the spill more than three miles offshore, meaning they would not be carrying oil to a separate port on shore.
"While we have not seen any need to waive the Jones Act as part of this historic response, we continue to prepare for all possible scenarios," Allen said. "Should any waivers be needed, we are prepared to process them as quickly as possible to allow vital spill response activities being undertaken by foreign-flagged vessels to continue without delay."
But Vial of Ecoceane, the French oil spill response company, said the Jones Act and other difficulties getting through to BP prevented his company from putting boats to work sooner. He has boats that could work offshore, but also smaller models that would be best suited in shallower inland waters within the three-mile limit.
"We could have sent boats earlier, but we wanted to make sure that if we sent our boats, they could be used in the U.S., because of the Jones Act," Vial said in an interview translated from French.
'Too many steps and barriers'
In the end, he sold nine of the spill response boats to a Florida company last week, which made them American boats and circumvented the problems with the Jones Act. Vial believes that BP and the federal government have been overwhelmed by the number of people offering assistance and ideas, thus slowing down the whole response.
"To respond to the crisis, whether it's BP or the U.S. government, they may have created too many administrative steps and barriers that are making the whole process much lengthier," he said.
Sens. LeMieux, Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, and John Cornyn, R-Texas, have proposed legislation that would temporarily waive the Jones Act for oil spill response vessels. Although there is a Jones Act waiver process for foreign vessels during an oil spill, the law requires that the Coast Guard make a determination that "an adequate number" of U.S. oil spill response vessels "cannot be engaged to recover oil from an oil spill in or near those waters in a timely manner." And the foreign country offering the boats must agree to allow the United States similar privileges in their country.
As of last week, no Jones Act waivers had been granted. According to the joint information center for the response, six vessels involved in oil containment have applied for Jones Act waivers that are still pending.
Chris Kirkham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 504.826.3321.