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

By Juliet Eilperin and Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 14, 2010; A04

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.

"This is different," Crowley said of the oil spill. "We are and will be drawing on the foreign assistance."

In many cases, this equipment is being provided by private companies -- at BP's expense. And like other elements of the joint response, decision-making has been complicated because federal officials must consult with the oil giant before signing off on any offer.

"The coordination on this side of the ocean was not completely clear," said Floris van Hovell, press counselor for the Dutch Embassy in Washington, adding that when a Dutch official was seeking to broker an aid agreement last month, "it was for a long time unclear on where he should go to and who should take the decision."

According to government sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss the matter, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton appealed to the White House several weeks ago, suggesting that it needed some foreign aid for practical and diplomatic reasons.

BP declined to comment.

'We want to help'

Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Christopher T. O'Neil wrote in an e-mail that decisions on foreign assistance are made between the top federal official on the scene, BP and "other represented agencies including state and local governments." The Coast Guard has a 51 percent "overriding vote in cases where consensus is not possible," he wrote. "All qualifying offers of assistance have been accepted."

In some cases, the administration rejected offers because they failed to meet U.S. specifications: The private consortium that serves as Norway's spill-response team uses a chemical dispersant that the Environmental Protection Agency has not approved.

In other cases, domestic politics are at play. Dutch authorities have worked in Louisiana since Katrina hit and were among the first to offer to help. After some hesitation, BP has obtained the state-of-the-art Dutch skimmers, two of which are in operation. Meanwhile, a massive sand-dredging operation is moving slowly.

A plan by Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) to create sand berms to keep oil from reaching the coastline originally came from the marine contractor Van Oord and the research institute Deltares, both in the Netherlands. BP pledged $360 million for the plan, but U.S. dredging companies -- which have less than one-fifth of the capacity of Dutch dredging firms -- have objected to foreign companies' participation.

Garret Graves, who chairs Louisiana's Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, wrote in an e-mail that state officials "have made it clear to our contractors from the beginning that we want to use American dredges to complete this sand berm as quickly as possible . . . Ultimately, any effort to expedite these berms will be fully considered, but we remain committed to our American companies."

In the meantime, governments around the world are mobilizing help. In addition to boom, Canada has dispatched an aircraft for surveillance flights as well as several technical experts. Japan is still offering to send boom; the Swedish Coast Guard said it can send three ships that can each collect 370 barrels of oil an hour, but it is waiting to hear from the U.S. government or BP.

The Norwegian Coastal Authority has approved sending nearly a third of the nation's spill response equipment to the gulf if asked.

"We want to help the U.S. with whatever they need," said Espen Myhra, energy counselor at the Norwegian Embassy. "But of course, it's up to the U.S. and BP to decide what they need, and we will respond to that."

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