Obama finally admits what's been obvious for years: We can't clean up oil spills

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Cold comfort for a nation that stands mouth agape at the mind-boggling catastrophe off our southern shore, but today President Obama finally admitted what we and others had been saying for years: America is wholly unprepared for a major oil spill. (And Puget Sound is particularly at risk. More on that in a moment.)

It's just a five-paragraph blurb on The New York Times' website, but in it our nation's highest-ranking civil servant says he made a mistake believing ''the oil companies had their act together when it came to worst case scenarios.'' He went on:

''I was wrong.''

D'ya think? But let's not go too hard on the commander-in-chief, given that every other level of government that's handled the so-called preparations for this massive spill got it wrong as well.

This incredibly dispiriting oil spill continues to leave me a little too slack-jawed to take it on in earnest as a blog topic. But it bears repeating that:

* Skimming oil is largely ineffective, capturing maybe 10 percent of the spilled oil -- if we're lucky.

* Boom is great and useful -- but you can't boom off the whole coast.

* There's a very basic assumption made across the country in planning for the worst-case oil spill: that equipment and workers can be "cascaded in" from other regions of the nation over a period of days to deal with the disaster. 

Post-Deepwater Horizon, it doesn't seem necessary to lay bare the fallacies in this last point.

But we think we should point out that in Puget Sound, officials admit they couldn't clean up even a spill a fraction of the size of the Exxon Valdez. That's what was previously considered a worst-case spill here.

Washington's Department of Ecology has a whole wing devoted to preventing and responding to oil spills -- but mostly to preventing them. The emphasis on prevention makes sense, since a state committee reported that trying to clean up a spill smaller than the Exxon Valdez in the closed-in Sound carved by deep glaciers would pretty much prove to be a fool's errand.

Here, no more than two-fifths of a big oil spill could be cleaned up. And that's if the weather is great, and the cleanup -- "cascading" in people and equipment and all that -- is pulled off perfectly.

The track record here? Even the response to the Sound's biggest spill of this decade -- which involved as much oil as the Deepwater Horizon appears to be spewing in an hour or less -- proved a Keystone Kops-like affair.

And don't forget that when all that equipment is "cascaded" away from Puget Sound to, say, the Gulf of Mexico, it can easily leave this region unprepared. To its credit, Ecology tested this in an unannounced drill after the Deepwater Horizon had drawn away many of Puget Sound's oil-spill-fighting resources.

In addition to Puget Sound, consider what would happen if a spill even half the size of the Exxon Valdez occurred in the dead of winter in a frozen-over Arctic Ocean. That's where Shell would like to start offshore driling this summer. Today the word from D.C. is that Obama  is putting the kibosh on that idea, at least temporarily. (Note that before the Deepwater Horizon the government had admitted the environmental analysis for the project was deeply  flawed -- enough so that government scientists quit over it. But it was going ahead anyway.) Here's what Interior Secretary Ken Salzar had to say today at a Congressional hearing about the Arctic drilling:

"The reality is there are issues of significant concerns in the Arctic; those relate to the oil spill response capabilities. We have concerns that what was previously considered to be safe is not as safe as we had been informed."  

Again... we're getting this no-shinola-Sherlock feeling. 

Looking beyond the Arctic, Obama is also waving off any new exploratory offshore drilling for at least six months anywhere along America's coasts. But today at that Congressional hearing, Salazar said offshore drilling eventually will go on.

Maybe it will take an even bigger spill to change the Obama administration's mind on that point?

-- Robert McClure