Oil spill shows difficulty the Coast Guard faces as it balances traditional tasks with post-9/11 missions

BP, the government and an army of volunteers are fighting to contain and clean the millions of gallons of oil spewing from the site of the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico.
By Joe Stephens and Mary Pat Flaherty
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, August 13, 2010

The U.S. Coast Guard in recent years has fought international terrorism, defended Iraqi pipelines and patrolled for pirates in the Arabian Sea.

Its work in such high-visibility missions accelerated after Sept. 11, 2001, when Congress swept the Coast Guard into the Homeland Security Department. More funding followed.

But the changes had the unintended consequence of lowering the profile of the Coast Guard's vital programs related to oil. "Priorities changed," a 2002 Coast Guard budget report said.

Internal and congressional studies highlighted the difficulty the agency faces in balancing its many added responsibilities. "Oil-spill issues were not at the top of the list," said retired Capt. Lawson Brigham, a former strategic planner for the Coast Guard.

When Coast Guard inspectors board offshore drilling rigs such as the Deepwater Horizon, which exploded and killed 11 workers in April, they rely on regulations put in place three decades ago, when offshore drilling operations were far less sophisticated, records show. The Coast Guard acknowledged 11 years ago in a little-noticed disclosure that its regulations had "not kept pace with the changing offshore technology or the safety problems it creates."

Since the Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, investigations into oversight gaps have focused on systemic problems within the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service, which in recent weeks has been renamed and revamped.

But the Coast Guard, which shared oversight with MMS, has largely escaped scrutiny. While the MMS inspected drilling equipment, the Coast Guard inspected rigs for worker safety. It also set standards for companies that clean up spills, and has coordinated the joint response to the spill in the gulf.

Some analysts said the spill highlights the need to rethink Coast Guard priorities. In the past 35 years, Congress has handed the agency at least 27 new responsibilities, according to a tally by Rep. James L. Oberstar (D-Minn.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

"They just don't have enough personnel to carry out all those missions," said Oberstar, who favors severing the Coast Guard from the Homeland Security Department. "That's just not possible."

Coast Guard officials said they did not have budget figures to compare how much is spent on oil-related programs now and before Sept. 11, 2001. Even current budget numbers for these programs are unclear because spending falls into two categories that encompass many other activities, including fighting invasive species and oversight of recreational boating. Marine environmental protection was allotted 2 percent of this year's operating expenses, marine safety 8 percent.

The Coast Guard said that before 2001, the agency was organized differently. A private study in 2003 by one Coast Guard officer calculated that, before the attacks, marine environmental programs accounted for 11 percent of operating funds and marine safety accounted for 14 percent.

Congressional staffers said the lack of reliable figures has complicated their efforts to ensure that vital programs are not neglected.

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