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Ernest Istook Headshot

Giant Cleanup Ship Met With Puny Response From Our Government

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After our government claimed that we did not need or could not obtain larger ships to skim the Gulf oil spill, a giant-capacity skimming ship has arrived in U.S. waters. Yet our government has left us wondering whether it will permit the ship to join the cleanup effort.

The problem is not simply the Jones Act; it's also that our Environmental Protection Agency may squelch the ability to use this giant ship.

The A Whale is not like the mere 4,000-barrel-a-day vessels we've been using. Its owners say this ship, a converted oil tanker, can gather 500,000 barrels a day. By comparison, say the owners, the entire fleet our government has authorized for BP has only gathered 600,000 barrels -- TOTAL -- in the 70 days since the Deepwater Horizon explosion. (NOTE: 500,000 barrels equals 21-million gallons.)

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CLICK TO SEE MORE IMAGES OF THE A WHALE.

The A Whale is the essence of an international ship -- built in South Korea, modified in Portugal, owned by Taiwanese and flagged in Liberia. And that is part of the problem. Even if it stays farther offshore than the 3-mile limit of America's Jones Act, it still requires approval by the U.S. Coast Guard and Environmental Protection Agency before BP can hire the A Whale and put it to work.

The second problem is that the ship would gather spilled oil, separate the water from the oil, and discharge the water back into the ocean so its tanks could be filled with oil. Our EPA says that doesn't meet its standards, because the discharge would retain a minor amount of oily residue. To EPA, any residue greater than 15 parts per million is impermissible. They elevate perfection above the need for speed -- to act quicker and stop as much oil as possible before it reaches the shoreline.

The A Whale also uses a skimming method that has been tested but not previously used on an actual spill, gathering oil through a dozen 16-foot slits cut into the sides of its bow (Video link). It mimics how Saudi Arabia reportedly cleaned up a 700-million gallon oil spill in 1993, by using oil supertankers to skim and gather the oil.

The A Whale arrived last weekend in Norfolk, Virginia, where it awaits a green light from the feds. The local media reported:

The Taiwanese-owned, Liberian-flagged ship dubbed the A Whale stands 10 stories high, stretches 1,115 feet in length and has a nearly 200-foot beam. It displaces more water than an aircraft carrier.

Built in South Korea as a supertanker for transporting oil and iron ore, the six-month-old vessel was refitted in the wake of the BP oil spill with 12, 16-foot-long intake vents on the sides of its bow designed to skim oil off surface waters.

The vessel's billionaire owner, Nobu Su, the CEO of Taiwanese shipping company TMT Group, said the ship would float across the Gulf "like a lawn mower cutting the grass," ingesting up to 500,000 barrels of oil-contaminated water a day.

But a number of hurdles stand in his way. TMT officials said the company does not yet have government approval to assist in the cleanup or a contract with BP to perform the work.

Not trusting the U.S. government to act quickly, TMT has hired public relations officials and lobbyists, and invited the media to inspect the ship, trying to cut through the federal red tape that has slowed down the cleanup so far. The Coast Guard says it has only given the ship a preliminary review.

Not until June 16th did our government officially decree that we needed foreign ships, because U.S. skimmers lacked the capacity. And our officials had claimed that no oil tanker-size vessels were available. And they have issued no waivers of the Jones Act.

As Rep. Corinne Brown (D, FL) told a congressional hearing, "There are small boats, but we need the big ones... They are available in foreign countries."

It's long past due that we put more resources into the problem. Every delay has enabled more oil to make landfall and be whipped up and spread by potential hurricanes. By bureaucratic delays in finding and hiring bigger cleanup vessels, our government and BP have caused the problem to become worse than it already was.

Former Congressman Ernest Istook is a distinguished fellow at The Heritage Foundation. First appeared at www.foundry.org.

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