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U.S. and BP slow to accept Dutch expertise

By LOREN STEFFY Copyright 2010 Houston Chronicle

June 8, 2010, 10:13PM

Three days after the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico, the Dutch government offered to help.

It was willing to provide ships outfitted with oil-skimming booms, and it proposed a plan for building sand barriers to protect sensitive marshlands.

The response from the Obama administration and BP, which are coordinating the cleanup: “The embassy got a nice letter from the administration that said, ‘Thanks, but no thanks,’” said Geert Visser, consul general for the Netherlands in Houston.

Now, almost seven weeks later, as the oil spewing from the battered well spreads across the Gulf and soils pristine beaches and coastline, BP and our government have reconsidered.

U.S. ships are being outfitted this week with four pairs of the skimming booms airlifted from the Netherlands and should be deployed within days. Each pair can process 5 million gallons of water a day, removing 20,000 tons of oil and sludge.

At that rate, how much more oil could have been removed from the Gulf during the past month?

The uncoordinated response to an offer of assistance has become characteristic of this disaster’s response. Too often, BP and the government don’t seem to know what the other is doing, and the response has seemed too slow and too confused.

Federal law has also hampered the assistance. The Jones Act, the maritime law that requires all goods be carried in U.S. waters by U.S.-flagged ships, has prevented Dutch ships with spill-fighting equipment from entering U.S. coastal areas.

“What’s wrong with accepting outside help?” Visser asked. “If there’s a country that’s experienced with building dikes and managing water, it’s the Netherlands.”

Even if, three days after the rig exploded, it seemed as if the Dutch equipment and expertise wasn’t needed, wouldn’t it have been better to accept it, to err on the side of having too many resources available rather than not enough?

BP has been inundated with well-intentioned cleanup suggestions, but the Dutch offer was different. It came through official channels, from a government offering to share its demonstrated expertise.

Many in the U.S., including the president, have expressed frustration with the handling of the cleanup. In the Netherlands, the response would have been different, Visser said.

There, the government owns the cleanup equipment, including the skimmers now being deployed in the Gulf.

“If there’s a spill in the Netherlands, we give the oil companies 12 hours to react,” he said.

If the response is inadequate or the companies are unprepared, the government takes over and sends the companies the bill.

While the skimmers should soon be in use, the plan for building sand barriers remains more uncertain. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal supports the idea, and the Coast Guard has tentatively approved the pro-ject. One of the proposals being considered was developed by the Dutch marine contractor Van Oord and Deltares, a Dutch research institute that specializes in environmental issues in deltas, coastal areas and rivers. They have a strategy to begin building 60-mile-long sand dikes within three weeks.

That proposal, like the offer for skimmers, was rebuffed but later accepted by the government. BP has begun paying about $360 million to cover the costs. Once again, though, the Jones Act may be getting in the way. American dredging companies, which lack the dike-building expertise of the Dutch, want to do the work themselves, Visser said.

“We don’t want to take over, but we have the equipment,” he said.

While he battles the bureaucracy, the people of Louisiana suffer, their livelihoods in jeopardy from the onslaught of oil.

“Let’s forget about politics; let’s get it done,” Visser said.

Loren Steffy is the Chronicle’s business columnist. His commentary appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Contact him at [email protected]. His blog is at http://blogs.chron.com/lorensteffy/.

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1 Comment on “U.S. and BP slow to accept Dutch expertise”

  1. #1 Rblendermann
    on Jun 14th, 2010 at 02:16

    Only a few days after the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico I was asking my self the same questions, and 2 to three weeks into the spill I could tell that the approach and finger pointing from our administration (and the U.S. main stream Media) would only lead to delays that would make the situation much worse. My father helped to design and build the Texaco Plant in Port Arthur TX (the largest in the world at the time) from the ground up and worked at the plant all his life as a Chemical Engineer. So I have been around this industry for a very long time. In Texas and in fact every where in the world there have been unforeseen problems and disasters with oil exploration. The only solution to resolve these problems is to act quickly and with as many resources as possible and then investigate and improve the technology, laws and procedures “After” the problem is contained. I seriously believe that if our administration had acted fast, unblocked any political and legal problems to get help fast that there would be a very small amount of the oil reaching to coastlines. Also, to degrade BP by political criticism to the point where their stocks take a nose dive is not in the best interest of anyone! It has now limited the financial resources that BP has to pay for fixing the problem and the clean up efforts besides causing poor relations between the US and the UK. I feel saddened by the fact that this only shows the rest of the world a stereotypical persona of Americans that can not understand that we do not know it all. Most of us are just normal folks like in any industrialized nation and have a clear understanding of what it means to help in any disaster around the world. This is an international community and what affects BP affects the rest of the oil companies as we are finding out by Obama halting of the offshore drilling. In fact 70% or more of the American public feel the same way that I do. Being from Texas, I seriously believe that if Bush were handling this problem, given his close ties to the Oil Industry, that the situation would be much better off. Anyway, there are two fronts to this problem. First is capping the well and the other is the containment of the oil in the Gulf. And the containment part (where all the bad press is) sits squarely on the lack of reaction from the current U.S. administration and by that I mean all the staff surrounding the current President and advising him. I am sure that the oil industries adaptability will find a safe and secure way to improve the capping of deep water blowouts in the future. The Solution for containment is already available as many industry leaders have pointed out. This is where we (the U.S) has fallen short and shot ourselves in the foot so to speak. By the way, I worked in the Int’l Building of Shell Oil in Houston (upstream) by managing the original installation and maintenance of the Automatic Tape libraries (Braegen/Bell Atlantic) in the basement back in the mid 1980’s before my assignment in Rome doing the same for the Banca d’Italia and returned to Shell Oil when returning two years later. – Richard

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