After delays, U.S. begins to tap foreign aid for gulf oil spill

Cleanup and containment efforts continue at the Gulf of Mexico site of the oil spill following the Deepwater Horizon explosion.
By Juliet Eilperin and Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 14, 2010

Four weeks after the nation's worst environmental disaster, the Obama administration saw no need to accept offers of state-of-the-art skimmers, miles of boom or technical assistance from nations around the globe with experience fighting oil spills.

"We'll let BP decide on what expertise they do need," State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid told reporters on May 19. "We are keeping an eye on what supplies we do need. And as we see that our supplies are running low, it may be at that point in time to accept offers from particular governments."

That time has come.

In the past week, the United States submitted its second request to the European Union for any specialized equipment to contain the oil now seeping onto the Gulf of Mexico's marshes and beaches, and it accepted Canada's offer of 9,842 feet of boom. The government is soliciting additional boom and skimmers from nearly two dozen countries and international organizations.

In late May, the administration accepted Mexico's offer of two skimmers and 13,779 feet of boom; a Dutch offer of three sets of Koseq sweeping arms, which attach to the sides of ships and gather oil; and eight skimming systems offered by Norway.

"As we understand what we need and identify domestic and foreign sources, we will act," said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley, who said the United States has received 21 aid offers from 17 countries and four international groups. "We are maintaining contact with these countries, we are grateful for the offers, and we will take them up on these offers."

But some lawmakers and outside experts are questioning whether the administration has been too slow to capitalize on these offers, lulled by BP's estimates on the oil flow rate and on its capacity to cope with the aftermath of the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig.

"We're clearly behind the curve because BP did not have the game plan to deal with this spill," said Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), who visited Louisiana on Friday. "I don't know if the federal government has the capacity it needs at this point."

Anthony H. Cordesman, a national security and energy analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the administration has been hampered because the spill is "a rare case" where the traditional emergency response routine does not apply.

"Most emergency relief is based on proven technology and precedence," he said. "We are now confronted by something that doesn't match any of the models."

A slippery slope

The State Department sent letters to some U.S. allies two weeks after the accident, and the Coast Guard initially sought to assess what supplies might be available overseas, but the administration's public posture on aid has been inconsistent. On May 5, Crowley announced that 13 international offers had been received and that decisions on what to accept would be made "in the next day or two." Two weeks later, the State Department said the government saw no reason to accept any of the offers.

Crowley said the Obama administration is well aware of what happened after Hurricane Katrina, when the U.S. government failed to capitalize on an unprecedented amount of foreign aid offers. Allies offered $854 million in cash and in oil meant to be sold for cash. In the end, only $126 million in cash from 40 donors was received.

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