BILOXI, Miss. — From Washington to the Gulf, politicians and residents wonder why so few skimming vessels have been put to work soaking up oil from the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe.
Investment banker Fred D. McCallister of Dallas believes he has the answer. McCallister, vice president of Allegiance Capital Corp. in Dallas, has been trying since June 5 to offer a dozen Greek skimming vessels from a client for the cleanup.
By sinking and dispersing the oil, BP can amortize the cost of the cleanup over the next 15 years or so, as tar balls continue to roll up on the beaches, rather than dealing with the issue now by removing the oil from the water with the proper equipment, McCallister testified earlier this week before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. As a financial adviser, I understand financial engineering and BPs desire to stretch out its costs of remediating the oil spill in the Gulf. By managing the cleanup over a period of many years, BP is able to minimize the financial damage as opposed to a huge expenditure in a period of a few years.
A BP spokesman from Houston, Daren Beaudo, denied the allegation emphatically. He said, Our goal throughout has been to minimize the amount of oil entering the environment and impacting the shoreline.
A report released Thursday by the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform included a photo depicting a massive swath of oil in the Gulf with no skimming equipment in sight. The report concluded: The lack of equipment at the scene of the spill is shocking, and appears to reflect what some describe as a strategy of cleaning up oil once it comes ashore versus containing the spill and cleaning it up in the ocean.
McCallisters experience in trying to win approval for the Greek vessels, along with the frustrations others have expressed in offering specialized equipment, contradicts the official pronouncements from BP and the federal government about the approval process. For foreign vessels, that process is complicated by a 1920 maritime law known as the Jones Act.
Coast Guard Rear Adm. James Watson, who oversees the Unified Command catastrophe response in New Orleans, determined in mid-June an insufficient number of U.S. skimming vessels is available to clean up oil, essentially exempting from the federal Jones Act foreign vessels that could be used in the response, said Capt. Ron LaBrec, a spokesman at Coast Guard headquarters in Washington.
The Jones Act allows only vessels that are U.S. flagged and owned to carry goods between U.S. ports.
To further clarify, Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the national incident commander, promised expedited Jones Act waivers for any essential spill-response activities. Should any waivers be needed, Allen said at the time, we are prepared to process them as quickly as possible to allow vital spill response activities being undertaken by foreign-flagged vessels to continue without delay.
LaBrec said 24 foreign vessels, two of them skimming vessels, have operated around the catastrophe site, in federal waters with no need for Jones Act waivers. He also said Watson has the authority to approve operation of foreign-flagged vessels near shore, where the Jones Act comes into play because of the port restrictions.