Leschine Testifies on Oil Spill

Thomas Leschine | June 9, 2010

Prof. Leschine recently spoke about the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico at a hearing of the Energy and Environment Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

In his testimony, Leschine said that inadequate risk assessment and underfunding of technologies for prevention and response have added to the problem.  Leschine directs the School of Marine Affairs at the College of Environment of the University of Washington.

Massive amounts of dispersants have been injected into the oil plume  with very little understanding about their effect on the environment,  Leschine added.

In his testimony Leschine pointed to an OTA report saying:

In 1990, shortly after the Exxon Valdez spill, the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment prepared at the request of the Congress a Background Paper, Coping with An Oiled Sea: An Analysis of Oil Spill Response Technologies. The report, strongly influenced by events then still unfolding in Prince William Sound, warned that future spills could easily overwhelm the technologies we had. It also cautioned that we can’t prepare for every contingency. The risk will never be zero. It found that industry had focused its efforts on preparing for small, relatively easily controllable spills in harbors and sheltered areas, and that it had likely oversold its ability to respond to major spills. Major spills in open water had up to that point seen recovery rates of no more than 10% of oil spilled, 6-8% in the case of Exxon Valdez, despite billions spent on response. I believe that this picture has not changed much today.

The OTA report found that the relative rarity of major spills was a major impediment to a sustained effort that would yield a higher-impact technology development program. The good news, perhaps, it also found the problem to be less a matter of needing dramatic engineering breakthroughs and more one requiring simply good engineering and sustained attention. It highlighted the need for good design and maintenance, training in deployment and use, and pre-positioning of response equipment in adequate quantities and types to deal with the really big events, like now. The report focused on technology to be sure, but also on decision-making, logistics, and training. Soft technologies, in other words.

In my view, OTA’s findings remain largely valid today, twenty years later. In many ways we are better prepared, but progress has been in fits and starts, issue attention cycle at work in my view. A robust approach to filling the tool kit, with the right hard and soft technologies, is needed.