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While discussing the continuing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico recently on Meet the Press, David Gregory asked Senator Mary Landrieu, "Is there a problem here of a learning curve, Senator?" Gregory added that "we know the federal government's not equipped to stop the, the spill or plug the leak. You've got to have that level of expertise. But it does seem, and Thad Allen even referred to that in The Wall Street Journal this week, as if there is a learning curve because nobody's got the experience to deal with a large-scale spill like this."
"We're all on a learning curve,'' Landrieu responded. "I learned this week that Canada ... for instance, does spills into their water to practice in the event that this would happen. That is not allowed in the United States. Maybe we should think about that." She added that "this is like going through something where we've never had a fire drill."
We were curious about the two related claims: Whether Canada does such practice sessions in open water, and whether the United States does not.
Canada does practice controlled oil spills in the open water. In a congressional hearing featuring Kevin Costner, the woman sitting to his left, Dr. Nancy Kinner, the co-director of the Coastal Response Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, mentioned that both Canada and Norway have controlled oil spills so that they can test new technologies.
The United States does not share that capability with their neighbor to the north, according to Kinner. "The United States is the only country that does oil spill R&D that has no opportunity to actually have on-water controlled spills to test technology," Kinner told members of Congress.
The Minerals Management Service confirms that "the U.S. prohibits training with real oil in the open ocean or conducting testing of equipment, technologies or methodologies with real oil in the open ocean. In North America testing, training and research using real oil is conducted in test tanks and in laboratories."
According to the Evironmental Protection Agency, it is technically possible to obtain a permit to spill oil on the open ocean through the EPA, but that type of permit has not been granted for at least 20 years.
As of now, the main training capability inside the U.S. is the National Oil Spill Response Research & Renewable Energy Test Facility, also known as Ohmsett. Real oil is used inside the training facility, but that is an enclosed system. The advantages of the Ohmsett system include the ability to control for all variables, allowing participants to test in a variety of different conditions. However, many experts, including Kinner, believes there is value to testing in the real world.
"I think we need to open up that possibility,'' she said, "that we have small releases where we can have open water testing, outside of Ohmsett, to test the in real world conditions, instead of in a big test tank."
The U.S. does have the Ohmsett's testing facility, and MMS has participated in the open-water exercises in Canada and Norway, so Landrieu overstates the situation when she says it is the equivalent to never having a fire drill.
Landrieu is right when she says that Canada practices in open water for oil spills, and that such testing is de facto prohibited here because the EPA has not issued a permit in two decades. Still, the application process does exist. It remains legally possible to ask for permission. So we rate this statement Mostly True.
NBC, Meet the Press, June 20, 2010.
Email Interview with Aaron Saunders, Communications Director for Senator Mary Landrieu, June 21, 2010.
Email Interview with Minerals Management Service Office of Public Affairs, June 24, 2010.
U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science and Technology, "Deluge of Oil Highlights Research and Technology Needs for Effective Cleanup of Oil Spills," June 9, 2010.
Ohmsett.com, "Research and Development."
Environmental Protection Agency, "Application for EPA Permits to Discharge Oil for Research Purposes," March 29, 2010.
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