Is BP rejecting skimmers to save money on Gulf oil cleanup?

Biloxi Sun-HeraldJuly 2, 2010 

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 BP’s 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.”

McCallister’s 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.

Fred D. McCallister, Vice President, Allegiance Capital Corporation

“If the unified area commander (Watson) decides that it’s a piece of equipment he needs, either BP would contract for it or he can do that himself,” LaBrec said. “If it’s something he decides is absolutely needed, he can get it in here without BP approval.

“The equipment that has been offered — the foreign equipment that has been offered that is useful for the response — has either been accepted or is in the group of offers that is currently in the process of being accepted. That has been occurring since early in the response and will continue to occur.”

Dealing with BP

McCallister said none of his dealings have been with the Coast Guard. He submitted requests for Jones Act waivers to Unified Command, but said questions about the skimming vessels have come from BP.

BP spokesman Beaudo said McCallister was notified his offer of skimming vessels has been declined because the vessels will not pick up heavy oil near shore. Beaudo said he did not know when McCallister was informed. McCallister said he received communications from BP on Thursday that indicated his proposal was still under review. In fact, he sent supplemental material Thursday, which was accepted, to show the skimming vessels will pick up heavy oil like that bombarding Mississippi’s coastline. The 60-foot vessels, he said, can skim high-density crude up to 20 miles offshore. Equipment on board separates the oil from water.

Desperate for skimmers

All the Gulf states dealing with oil have pleaded for more skimming vessels. The Deepwater Horizon Web site indicates 550 “skimmers” were at work before bad weather suspended operations.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour’s office has ordered private shipyards to build skimming vessels because so few have been working in state waters. George Malvaney, who heads the Mississippi Coast cleanup effort for BP subcontractor U.S. Environmental Services, said offers of skimming vessels and other equipment take time to review. He believes Mississippi will have a “substantial skimming effort” by late next week.

“Just because it’s a skimmer doesn’t mean it’s effective,” Malvaney said. “There’s a lot of people out there saying, ‘We’ve got skimmers.’ Some are effective, some are not. That’s what we’re trying to wade through right now.”

More than meets the eye?

As the catastrophe reaches Day 73, McCallister, who grew up in Mississippi and has family on the Coast, believes there is just more to it.

“Looking at it from a businessman’s perspective,” he said, “if I am BP, assuming I don’t have a conscience that would steer me otherwise, the best thing I can do for my shareholders, my pensioners, and everybody else, is to try to spread the cost of this remediation out as long as I can.

“I am concerned it is seen by BP as being the most pragmatic financial approach. But they’re playing Russian roulette with the Gulf, the marine life in the Gulf and the people in the Gulf region.”

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