By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 28, 2010; A22
Three months before the massive BP oil spill erupted in the Gulf of Mexico, the Obama administration proposed downsizing the Coast Guard national coordination center for oil spill responses, prompting its senior officers to warn that the agency's readiness for catastrophic events would be weakened.
That proposal is feeding a mounting debate over whether the federal government is able to regulate deep-sea oil extraction. Defense analysts and retired agency leaders question whether the Coast Guard -- which shares oversight of offshore drilling with the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service -- has the expertise and resources to keep pace with industry advances.
Accidents happen, "but what you're seeing here is the government is not properly set up to deal with this kind of issue," said Robbin Laird, a defense consultant who has worked on Coast Guard issues. "The idea that you would even think about getting rid of catastrophic environmental spill equipment or expertise at the Department of Homeland Security, are you kidding me?"
"Cutting a strike team is nuts," said Stephen Flynn, a former Coast Guard commander and now president of the Center for National Policy, a Washington think tank. "Whether it's an accident of man or an act of terrorism, it requires almost the exact same skill set to clean it up."
President Obama's $10.1 billion spending plan for the Coast Guard would scale back funding and active-duty personnel by 3 percent. As part of a proposal to cut 1,100 military personnel, it would decommission the National Strike Force Coordination Center in Elizabeth City, N.C., and reorganize parts of it elsewhere.
The center serves as the national command for the Coast Guard activity responsible for sending technical experts and specialized equipment such as pumps and chemical dispersant monitors to support on-scene commanders.
Capt. Ron LaBrec, a Coast Guard spokesman, said that the proposal will streamline operations and that the staffing and equipment of three other strike teams that work with the center will not be reduced. The coordination center's "duties will be transferred to other Coast Guard offices, allowing redundant logistical and administrative positions to be eliminated," he said in an e-mail.
In a February interview on Laird's Web site, Second Line of Defense, the National Strike Force's executive officer said that although federal law requires industries to be able to respond to spills and to pay for them, it is the Coast Guard that inspects whether they can meet their obligation. The Coast Guard also keeps databases of cleanup companies, storage sites and equipment.
"The elimination of the national command element could well lead to a reduction in core competencies in capabilities needed in a crisis," said Cmdr. Tina Cutter. The absence of large spills in recent years has "degraded" the skills of responders, making it more critical to maintain technical experts, particularly in catastrophes, she said.
Industry and former Coast Guard officials say that private-sector research into spills has not kept pace with drilling advances and that the government also has struggled to keep pace.
One improvement, said James M. Loy, Coast Guard commandant from 1998 to 2002 and now senior counselor at the Cohen Group, is the just-announced expansion of the Coast Guard's role in approving drilling and spill response plans.
Also, Adm. Thad Allen, the Coast Guard commandant, and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar proposed requiring inspections of blowout preventers and independent certification of industry drilling systems.
As the country considers how to beef up response requirements, the Coast Guard also will probably oversee the rise of private cleanup firms. Ken Wells, president of the Offshore Marine Service Association, which represents U.S.-flagged vessels that support drilling rigs, said the Coast Guard should invest in people, not materials. "It's intellectual capital rather than equipment," Wells said. "The government doesn't own things very well."
The wider dilemma for the Coast Guard is how to manage expanded responsibilities along with its traditional duties at a time of shrinking budgets.
In a statement, Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Kent.), ranking Republican on the House Appropriations homeland security subcommittee, said, "If we're going to rely on the Coast Guard to secure our borders, stop Caribbean drug traffickers, respond to earthquakes, counter terrorist threats, and stop one of the largest oil spills in American history, we'd had better resource these frontline agencies appropriately."