The U.S. Coast Guard published a Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) on June 4 soliciting white papers offering technical solutions to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The research opportunity announcement, titled Deepwater Horizon Response, gives the following background (emphasis mine):
The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA 90) and applicable Federal legislation and regulations provide the USCG with broad responsibilities and authorities regarding oil spill response oversight on the navigable waters of the United States. Included are responsibilities and authorities to conduct, in coordination with other Federal agencies, research on innovative oil spill technology.
Ideally (and logically) research such as this would be funded and conducted prior to actual need for the technology.
OPA 90 has been in effect for 20 years and yet the response technology being used today is virtually identical to that used in shallow water (Continental Shelf) spills 30 years ago (see for example the excellent NPR broadcast, Oil Spill Cleanup Technology Stuck In 20th Century).
The following are the topics of interest for research proposal white papers from the June 4th BAA, which are referred to as "technology gaps":
- Oil Sensing Improvements to Response and Detection
(For example, tactical oil sensing, surface oil tracking and reporting, submerged oil detection, submerged oil tracking and reporting, etc.)
- Oil Wellhead Control and Submerged Oil Response
(For example, wellhead spill control, wellhead shutoff measures, submerged oil collection, submerged oil treatment, etc.)
- Traditional Oil Spill Response Technologies
(For example, booms, skimmers, surface collections techniques, absorbents, near- and on-shore response, innovative applications not commonly used for oil spill response, disposal, etc.)
- Alternative Oil Spill Response Technologies
(For example, In-situ burn, alternative chemical treatments, innovative applications not commonly used for oil response, etc.)
- Oil Spill Damage Assessment and Restoration
(For example, damage assessment techniques, tracking surface restoration technologies and submerged restoration technologies, etc.)
What is stunning to me about this "wish list" is that it covers such a staggering range of research needs that apparently were not recognized as such until an uncontrollable 20-40K barrel per day spill occurred. Meanwhile, in the interim two decades since passage of OPA 90, offshore oil leasing has been approved by Congress and operations like BP's have been approved by MMS with assurances that the expertise and infrastructure were in place to deal with all contingencies.
This is not simply a case of partisan complacency or purposeful "non-governing" as practiced by the modern GOP. OPA 90 was passed just after the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989, during President George H. W. Bush's tenure, and has been in effect now for almost equal time periods under Democratic and Republican administrations. It appears on the surface that memories of environmental disasters decompose more quickly than the crud left on shorelines.
It would be interesting to know the history of USCG efforts to make use of their authority and responsibility for oil spill response research. How much has been funded during the past 20 years, and with which other federal agencies? What resources were made available to do so? One experiment coordinated by the USCG in California tested high frequency radar for tracking surface currents, and this technology is available to for the Gulf of Mexico as well, along with Gulf circulation models run by various institutions. But from the wish list above, it appears there are numerous -- and large -- technology gaps that were not addressed over the years.