Why Is the Gulf Cleanup So Slow?

First, the Environmental Protection Agency can relax restrictions on the amount of oil in discharged water, currently limited to 15 parts per million. In normal times, this rule sensibly controls the amount of pollution that can be added to relatively clean ocean water. But this is not a normal time.

Various skimmers and tankers (some of them very large) are available that could eliminate most of the oil from seawater, discharging the mostly clean water while storing the oil onboard. While this would clean vast amounts of water efficiently, the EPA is unwilling to grant a temporary waiver of its regulations.

Next, the Obama administration can waive the Jones Act, which restricts foreign ships from operating in U.S. coastal waters. Many foreign countries (such as the Netherlands and Belgium) have ships and technologies that would greatly advance the cleanup. So far, the U.S. has refused to waive the restrictions of this law and allow these ships to participate in the effort.

The combination of these two regulations is delaying and may even prevent the world’s largest skimmer, the Taiwanese owned “A Whale,” from deploying. This 10-story high ship can remove almost as much oil in a day as has been removed in total—roughly 500,000 barrels of oily water per day. The tanker is steaming towards the Gulf, hoping it will receive Coast Guard and EPA approval before it arrives.

In addition, the federal government can free American-based skimmers. Of the 2,000 skimmers in the U.S. (not subject to the Jones Act or other restrictions), only 400 have been sent to the Gulf. Federal barriers have kept the others on stations elsewhere in case of other oil spills, despite the magnitude of the current crisis. The Coast Guard and the EPA issued a joint temporary rule suspending the regulation on June 29—more than 70 days after the spill.

WSJ
7/2/10