The Gulf Oil Crisis and the USCG: Where are the Resources?

The Need To Refill

Ohio - U.S. Air Force Master. Sgt Paul Tatar, a C-130 Hercules aircraft aerial spray aircraft maintainers, from the 910th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron at Youngstown-Warren Air Reserve Station, Ohio,  refill a C-130 with oil-dispersing chemicals on the runway of the Stennis International Airport, Miss, on May 9, 2010. Members of the 910th Airlift Wing (AW) are in Mississippi to assist with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The 910th AW specializes in aerial spray and is the Department of Defense’s only large-area fixed-wing aerial spray unit.

U.S. Air Force Master. Sgt Paul Tatar, a C-130 Hercules aircraft aerial spray aircraft maintainers, from the 910th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron at Youngstown-Warren Air Reserve Station, Ohio, refill a C-130 with oil-dispersing chemicals on the runway of the Stennis International Airport, Miss, on May 9, 2010. Members of the 910th Airlift Wing (AW) are in Mississippi to assist with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The 910th AW specializes in aerial spray and is the Department of Defense’s only large-area fixed-wing aerial spray unit. (Credit Photo : US Air Force Tech Sgt Prentice Colter, Ohio, May 2010, www.deepwaterhorizonresponse.com)

Once again we face a Gulf crisis.  This time the crisis involves oil spills, not a hurricane.  Once again, the USCG is providing leadership and skilled manpower to cope with a national problem.  If history is a guide, the USCG will perform well, but receive no new resources to cope with future crises.  Many will marvel again when seeing daring rescues and other events requiring exceptional skills and highly reliable equipment, but few will appreciate the years of training and highly effective equipment necessary for successful execution often during awful conditions. If any of us are victims of exceptional danger and lucky enough to be plucked from a life threatening experience, we’ll want at least two things as we dangle from the helo hoist or as boats and ships fight the wicked waves to rescue us—skilled people doing the job with the best equipment possible.

In fact, the operational tempo associated with the crisis will further deplete USCG resources. The service can accelerate its pace of operations, but will receive no new money for depleted capital assets.  This is not only short-sighted, but also suicidal with regard to environmental security. With the crisis, the USCG may get access, along with other federal agencies, to emergency funding.  Unfortunately, there is no ability to access such funding to work on prevention or to acquire equipment appropriate to shape proactive capabilities in dealing with future oil spills and other environmental challenges.

Indeed, the USCG is currently undergoing painful budget cuts at the hands of Administration and the Congress. Ironically, one of these cuts involves eliminating the ability of the USCG to deal with catastrophic environmental problems. Two weeks after the Haiti earthquake, the President’s proposed budget called for cutting some of the very ships and helos that were so dramatically needed there,  where the Coast Guard was the first in and last —in fact it’s still there. During a period of constant inside the beltway jabbering about so called “jobs bills”, more than 2,000 Coast Guard people will get pink slips. Aren’t these the kinds of jobs and people we want to keep?

In addition, USCG cutters like the one pictured behind the President in a recent appearance in the Gulf are being significantly cut as well, while the maritime patrol aircraft, which have been used as part of the oil spill response, are under the gun from the Department of Homeland Security.

The oil spill comes at a point where the nation will rely increasingly on indigenous capabilities to provide for energy needs.  The Eighth District for the USCG is a key oversight agency for these growing needs.  As one USCG leader put it:

The unique feature of the 8th District is the offshore sector.  It captures the intercontinental shelf, oil and natural gas industry. 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 to no-one’s surprise the 8th District is not adequately resourced in terms of personnel or equipment.  As Captain Stanton, New Orleans Sector Commander, put it: “we are very resource strained.  We have to surge our resources all over our AOR, and our bench strength is very thin”.

Let’s talk about oversight for a bit; no not the kind of alleged oversight seen on TV where some posturing politician l is reading scripted sound bites while berating a witness on some obscure, “when will you stop beating your wife” type questions. Real oversight is hard work every day all day by highly trained, educated and hard working public servants. And yes, it must involve the industry in a most productive way. Mature people know all these oversight programs are in reality risk management assessments. We can’t prevent all bad things from happening, all the time, everywhere. Mature and informed judgments must be applied. These judgments can have the best chance (it will be a chance always) of success, if adequate numbers of highly educated and skilled people are available to make them. Furthermore, sufficient people and equipment are required for periodic checks and observations. No, we can’t see everything everywhere—risk assessment and management again. Our problem is we have grossly inadequate numbers of both.

Let’s learn from this disaster and apply its lessons across the board. Resource our protectors adequately. We love what they do in a crisis, but let’s not make them lament, “Will you still love me tomorrow”?

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***Posted on May 10th, 2010

"If everyone is thinking alike, someone isn’t thinking."

—General George Patton Jr.

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