Friday, June 18, 2010

Another one from the OTA Archives!

I have found another archive of OTA documents, located at the Federation of American Scientists' website. The FAS is an interesting organization in its own right, and one doesn't have to look far to see the obvious interest they would have in restoring the OTA. The 1990 study they have posted, "Coping with an Oiled Sea,"* is a nice follow up to yesterday's post, in that it is a response to the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. This study again demonstrates how ahead of the curve the OTA was on so many issues. Reading through this study, warning after warning is sounded about the technological limitations and fundamental organizational disparity between government and industry cleaning up a large oil spill at sea. The study also offers many areas for improvement, by analyzing the United States' gaps in technology and policy vis-a-vis European nations who have histories dealing with spills.

The foreword to the study sort of says it all:
Cleaning up a discharge of millions of gallons of oil at sea under even moderate environmental conditions is an extraordinary problem. Current national capabilities to respond effectively to such an accident are marginal at best. OTA’s analysis shows that improvements could be made, and that those offering the greatest benefits would not require technological breakthroughs –just good engineering design and testing, skilled maintenance and training, timely access to and availability of the most appropriate and substantial systems, and the means to make rapid, informed decisions. One must understand, however, that even the best national response system will have inherent practical limitations that will hinder spill response efforts for catastrophic events– sometimes to a major extent. For that reason it is important to pay at least equal attention to preventive measures as to response systems. In this area, the proverbial ounce of prevention is worth many, many pounds of cure.
Some other equally fitting excerpts:
On the one hand, industry has oversold its ability to fight major spills, and the government has largely relied on private capabilities; on the other, the public's expectation about what can be accomplished once a major spill has occurred has been too high.
If important decisions, such as how to deploy mechanical equipment and whether to use dispersants, are not made within the first few hours after a major spill, the spill may be beyond effective control. Rapid decisionmaking is difficult in the United States, in part because oil companies have the responsibility to clean up major spills but not the authority to use all means they deem appropriate. Rapid decisionmaking could be enhanced if the government were responsible for combating major vessel spills, as is the case inmost European countries; if authority within the government were more centralized; and if, through more thorough contingency planning, a greater number of decisions could be made without delay.
Just remember, this was written in 1990, two decades ago. We had an organization, commissioned by Congress to sound alarms on things like the disastrous consequences of oil spills and offer practical solutions. We shut it down. Let's bring it back.

*For any political buffs, it is worth noting that this study was bipartisan in nature, but in a way that only history can make funny: the two sponsors of the study were Alaska Senator Ted Stevens and Louisiana Congressman Billy Tauzin. At the time, this would have constituted a bipartisan effort, before Tauzin switched parties.