Calvin M. Lederer, Deputy Judge Advocate General, United States Coast Guard
By Bailey Woolfstead
Cal Lederer kicked off the symposium by giving an overview of what actually happened in the oil spill, the various approaches taken to stop the spill, and the authorities underlying spills in the future. Mr. Lederer brought the perspective to the immediate aftermath of the spill from the Coast Guard, the United States’ primary military response.
Mr. Lederer began by providing an overview what Deepwater Horizon (also known as the Macondo well, or MC-252), a mobile offshore drilling unit, or MODU, is, commenting that there are currently 140 of these MODUs in the world right now and that various agencies, including the Coast Guard, share regulatory roles and responsibilities power .
Mr. Lederer continued by providing the basic facts of the oil spill including that the Deepwater Horizon well was located 50 miles Southeast of the nearest point of land, 5000 feet below the water, and the actual oil reservoir was locate an additional 13,000 feet below the sea floor, the area was leased to British Petroleum (BP) by the minerals management service and exploratory drilling began in the location in 2008. 11 people died during the blowout and the primary concerns in the immediate aftermath were search and rescue and firefighting. He noted that there were 87 days from the time of the explosion to the final capping and killing of the oil spill in August and that in that time approximately 4.9 million barrels of oil escaped into the ocean.
Mr. Lederer next discussed the three approaches that were taken in the aftermath of the oil spill. The first approach Mr. Lederer discussed was to contain and seal the source, which ultimately involved a capping stack and relief wells. He explained the three phases to finding the ultimate solution, including attempting to force the blowout preventer to function the way it was designed who, which was approached initially with optimism but ultimately failed. He then moved on to the second phase of trial, error, and failure based on a drastic underestimation of the number of barrels flowing from the well per day. Finally, Mr. Lederer discussed the third phase to capping the well where the U.S. government began to take control, oversee BP’s capping efforts, and ultimately placed a series of top hats which mitigated about half the flow of the oil spill by mid-June and placing a blowout preventer on top of the capping stack and drilling two relief wells to pump cement to finally kill the well. Mr. Lederer noted that the national commission report shows how tense and dramatic this procedure actually was, including conference calls with hundreds of people determining what negative impacts, including a secondary blowout, may be caused by any of the potential solutions to the blowout.
The second approach discussed by Mr. Lederer was offshore engagement, including the three processes of dealing with the oil before it reaches the shore. Aerial and subsea disbursements, including Corexit, were approved prior to the oil spill to break oil up into smaller droplets to discourage it from finding its way to shore and allowing the oil to naturally degrade. An issue with the disbursements is that they may be more toxic than the oil itself and may have an adverse impact on organisms in the water. As a result, the Coast Guard requested that BP reduce its usage of Corexit, which decreased by 60% during the month of June.
The second process Mr. Lederer discussed was skimming. While not incredibly effective, skimming boats gave jobs to displaced fisherman and did remove 35 million gallons of oily-water mix. The final major process Mr. Lederer discussed was the in-situ burn, which was controversial based on the fear of harm to sea creatures, particularly turtles, from the fires. While this practice was not pre-approved, there were statutory provisions for emergency actions by the government.
Third, Mr. Lederer discussed protecting the shoreline including diversion and exclusion booming and the rapid response to beaches.
The final topic of Mr. Lederer’s presentation was authorities underlying spills in the future. The response authorities discussed by Mr. Lederer include the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, the Oil Pollution Act of 1992, the National Contingency Plan, the Homeland Security Presidential Directive, and the National Response Framework.
In terms of the structure of the response to the Deepwater Horizon spill, Mr. Lederer pointed out that while there were typically only a few hundred individuals involved in cleanup in prior oil spills, thousands were involved in the cleanup of Deewater Horizon. Federal, state, local and BP actors worked together in 17 branches and 32 staging areas under a unified command to coordinate the cleanup. Mr. Lederer also discussed the high level interest from the president and cabinet level officials in the cleanup, and the difficulty in hearing the voices of technical experts over those of the cabinet level officials. Mr. Lederer further noted the command and control issue that arose when the Oil Pollution Act gives federal command and control where the Stafford Act gives states and local government the lead in dealing with disasters. Mr. Lederer specifically noted that the social and political nullification of the national contingency plan because state and local governments believed they should spearhead response needs to be addressed gong forward.
In response to the oil spill, Mr. Lederer discussed the investigations that have been initiated by the DOJ and the joint investigation by the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of the Interior.
Mr. Lederer concluded by discussing that the cost of oil spill removal is federalized with the United States paying out of picket many of the up-front costs through the oil spill liability trust fund with full reimbursement by BP. While there was a $75 million cap for oil spill damage liability, which is an issue being discussed on Capitol Hill, BP has waived the cap.