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Oil Spill: Where is the Coastie Debate?


The Coast Guard needs money. At a time when the service is due to whack 1,100 uniform positions and drop some missions, it must manage the government response to the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill, pursue drug traffickers, rescue fishermen and sailors, guard our nation's coasts and enforce all those fishing and environmental regulations. International defense consultant Robbin Laird, who has been working Coast Guard issues for some time, argues that one very apt place to pull funding for the Coast Guard's environmental and emergency responses is the Minerals Management Service, the federal body that licenses offshore drilling. The MMA generates about $13 billion each year working with oil companies to develop oil and natural gas fields. Stop pointing fingers, Laird says, and do something.

In scenes that would make our ancestors from the 1890s proud, populist Washington is finger pointing at anyone and everyone who might be responsible for the crisis caused by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Congress is having hearings on whom to blame and we are even getting entertaining presentations from politicians on the technical issues of oil drilling and safety.

What we are not having is an adult conversation about the ways to improve the safety and security of the deep-sea drilling enterprise and, more to the point, ways to shape a more effective public-private partnership in managing the challenges of deep sea offshore drilling. What we need to focus upon is how to enhance public sector capabilities and to shape more effective dialogue with the private sector leading to more effective stewardship.

The private sector is where the investment will come from for developing the offshore oil and gas fields. The private sector is where the tools for oil drilling are going to come from. The private sector is where the oil will be refined and delivered to support economic growth and development. The government will do none of this; rather it will tax the revenues.

Nonetheless, the public sector needs to be better-resourced and more effective in providing oversight and stewardship. Without effective public stewardship, there will be a significant downturn in offshore drilling and in the investment in such capabilities and activities. Both the public and private sector need more effective public stewardship. But we will not get that from a populist finger-pointing circus.

When there is a crisis, the Coast Guard and other agencies can dip into emergency funds. Why not create a fund, which the Coast Guard and other federal agencies can use to fund the equipment, and manpower necessary to provide for better stewardship? Instead of reactive disaster management, why not fund the Coast Guard so it can have the capabilities it needs before disaster strikes? Rather than cutting Coast Guard funding or toying with handing Coastie functions to the Navy, which has no domain competence in managing stewardship activities, the Obama administration should end the cuts it has in train, including the rather shocking elimination of some of the Coast Guard's catastrophic spill equipment.

The administration is going to reform the Minerals Management Service, the federal agency responsible for licensing offshore drilling. The agency is going to be split so that the revenue receiving side and the regulatory side are separate and this is being done to ensure that the risk of conflict of interest goes down.

A more fundamental question is how competent is the agency in having knowledgeable maritime trained folks to provide oversight to a very different sort of oil enterprise? And how might the Coast Guard be more effectively resourced in working with the Minerals Management Agency so that oversight and preparation for disaster intervention is fully resourced and staffed?

And we do not have to be abstract about this. The eighth USCG district at the heart of providing for Gulf oil security and stewardship. According to a senior USCG official in the district, “within this region there is 6,500 oil and gas wells; 4,000 oil or gas production platforms and over 800 of which have full-time crew support. There are 116 Mobile offshore drilling units 51 of which are stacked, some which are crude and some are not. There are 30,000 workers offshore on any given day. This infrastructure accounts for 30 percent of our domestically produced oil and 23 percent of our domestically produced natural gas.

And the challenges will be growing. Another senior official underscored the deep offshore oil and gas enterprise. “The companies are going to be drilling and working so much farther offshore and deeper; the offshore energy sector is a huge game changer field technology-wise and what they’re doing now it pales in comparison two years ago. They’re not only going 10,000 feet deep; they’re also drilling deeper than before.”

We need to shape a public discussion of the needs of the Coast Guard and other agencies to make this sector work more effectively. We need to fund more effectively the public partners to the effort, and we could focus on funding more capabilities for the MMS and the Coast Guard out of the funds generated from offshore drilling. And we need to do this now because we are going deeper and farther than before, and we need to shape knowledge structures and other tool sets which would allow us to be more effective moving forward with a more effective public-private partnership.

Robbin Laird is an international defense consultant and co-founder of Second Line of Defense, a website which focuses on logistics, sustainment and concepts of operations.

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