Obama Refused Dutch Oil Cleanup Help?

My default position on disasters is that presidents get far too much blame for not doing enough when, usually, there’s little that they can do.   With minor quibbles here and there, that’s been my view of the Gulf oil spill.    This report from Houston Chronicle business columnist Loren Steffy may change my mind:

Three days after the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico, the Dutch government offered to help.  It was willing to provide ships outfitted with oil-skimming booms, and it proposed a plan for building sand barriers to protect sensitive marshlands.  The response from the Obama administration and BP, which are coordinating the cleanup: “The embassy got a nice letter from the administration that said, ‘Thanks, but no thanks,'” said Geert Visser, consul general for the Netherlands in Houston.

Now, almost seven weeks later, as the oil spewing from the battered well spreads across the Gulf and soils pristine beaches and coastline, BP and our government have reconsidered.  U.S. ships are being outfitted this week with four pairs of the skimming booms airlifted from the Netherlands and should be deployed within days. Each pair can process 5 million gallons of water a day, removing 20,000 tons of oil and sludge.

At that rate, how much more oil could have been removed from the Gulf during the past month?

The uncoordinated response to an offer of assistance has become characteristic of this disaster’s response. Too often, BP and the government don’t seem to know what the other is doing, and the response has seemed too slow and too confused.

Federal law has also hampered the assistance. The Jones Act, the maritime law that requires all goods be carried in U.S. waters by U.S.-flagged ships, has prevented Dutch ships with spill-fighting equipment from entering U.S. coastal areas.

“What’s wrong with accepting outside help?” Visser asked. “If there’s a country that’s experienced with building dikes and managing water, it’s the Netherlands.”

Even if, three days after the rig exploded, it seemed as if the Dutch equipment and expertise wasn’t needed, wouldn’t it have been better to accept it, to err on the side of having too many resources available rather than not enough?

BP has been inundated with well-intentioned cleanup suggestions, but the Dutch offer was different. It came through official channels, from a government offering to share its demonstrated expertise.

Many in the U.S., including the president, have expressed frustration with the handling of the cleanup. In the Netherlands, the response would have been different, Visser said. There, the government owns the cleanup equipment, including the skimmers now being deployed in the Gulf.  “If there’s a spill in the Netherlands, we give the oil companies 12 hours to react,” he said.  If the response is inadequate or the companies are unprepared, the government takes over and sends the companies the bill.

While the skimmers should soon be in use, the plan for building sand barriers remains more uncertain. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal supports the idea, and the Coast Guard has tentatively approved the pro-ject. One of the proposals being considered was developed by the Dutch marine contractor Van Oord and Deltares, a Dutch research institute that specializes in environmental issues in deltas, coastal areas and rivers. They have a strategy to begin building 60-mile-long sand dikes within three weeks.

That proposal, like the offer for skimmers, was rebuffed but later accepted by the government. BP has begun paying about $360 million to cover the costs. Once again, though, the Jones Act may be getting in the way. American dredging companies, which lack the dike-building expertise of the Dutch, want to do the work themselves, Visser said.  “We don’t want to take over, but we have the equipment,” he said.

This is a breaking story and the presentation a bit overwrought, so let’s wait and see what the administration response is before getting too excited.   But, offhand, this looks bad.

Certainly, the president could have shown leadership in ordering a waiver of the Jones Act or demanding its repeal or amendment.

As to the fact that the Netherlands government has a plan for this and we don’t, I’m not terribly surprised.   It’s a small, maritime and riverine country surrounded with oil drilling.  But you’d sure think taking advantage of an ally’s offer of assistance would have made sense, not only in terms of the spill itself but for building better relations with Europe.  Given the scale of our economies, it’s rare that the Netherlands can bail us out.  Why not let them when the opportunity arises?

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. john personna says:

    Based on initial estimates of oil flow, and initial plans to cap the leak, would the Dutch ships have arrived before it was all over?

    I’d guess that Obama was advised that it would be all over, and that this is really about how he should have known (post-hoc) that we’d get a worst-case result.

  2. john personna says:

    (For the first few weeks, we were supposed to have a new solution in a few days …)

  3. sam says:

    Technically, doesn’t this

    Federal law has also hampered the assistance. The Jones Act, the maritime law that requires all goods be carried in U.S. waters by U.S.-flagged ships, has prevented Dutch ships with spill-fighting equipment from entering U.S. coastal areas.

    prevent the president from accepting Dutch help if that help involves Dutch ships entering our waters for the pruposes described?

  4. Franklin says:

    My thinking is similar to john personna’s here. BP supposedly had the equipment and planning to take care of any problem (and measure the extent of it), and indicated repeatedly that they would take responsibility. Well it turns out now that they didn’t and couldn’t. Hindsight is 20/20.

    Regardless, it should have been in this President’s nature to not fully trust BP, and he probably should have accepted the Dutch help (if legally allowed to). Be aware, though, that we would have presumably been on the hook to repay the Dutch, and if it turned out that it was all unnecessary, the Administration would have been attacked with claims of fiscal irresponsibility not to mention lack of trust in American know-how.

  5. JKB says:

    sam – such laws generally have exception provisions if not outright suspension by the president. If not, by the time the Dutch ships arrived, congress could have acted for a temporary suspension.

    No one with knowledge ever thought the well would be stopped until the relief wells intersected it. The measures they are taking were to reduce the leak or capture the leak. Possibly get lucky and have the pugged BOP seriously reduce it but the laws of physics require permanent plugging occur at the bottom of the well.

    In any case, there was a lot of oil that needed to be skimmed even after the first day.

  6. sam says:

    JKB, you’re right about the suspension:

    Requests for waivers of certain provisions of the act are reviewed by the United States Maritime Administration on a case by case basis. Waivers have been granted for example, in cases of national emergencies or in cases of strategic interest. For instance, declining oil production prompted MARAD to grant a waiver to operators of the 512-foot Chinese vessel Tai An Kou to tow an oil rig from the Gulf of Mexico to Alaska. The jackup rig will be under a two-year contract to drill in the Alaska’s Cook Inlet Basin. The waiver to the Chinese vessel is said to be the first of its kind granted to an independent oil-and-gas company.Merchant Marine Act of 1920 – The Jones Act

  7. john personna says:

    “Regardless, it should have been in this President’s nature to not fully trust BP, and he probably should have accepted the Dutch help (if legally allowed to). “

    Yeah. I’m not trying to make too strong a defense of the decision.

    I know I considered the “black swan” the first week, and asked “what if it can’t be capped?” At the same time, I wonder if the experts would have convinced me that no, that fear was unreasonable.

  8. c.red says:

    Being a fairly vigorous defender of the admin so far for the oil leak response, I would have to say while I find this news disappointing, it really doesn’t change my attitude.

    The offer was made by the dutch in good faith and so far there is no indication there was any reason for turning it down other than thinking we wouldn’t need the help. The situation has been re-assessed and now they realize they do need the help and they went back to the dutch and accepted it. In a small way I’m a little happy because it shows they are willing to take an image hit to get tools when they feel they need them.

    Sum up for me, it was a mistake, but hardly a sign of total incompetence.

  9. Michael says:

    Three days after the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico, the Dutch government offered to help.

    IIRC, three days after the explosion BP was fairly confident that the blow-out preventer had sealed the well head, and that any leaking of oil would be very minor.

    In any case, there was a lot of oil that needed to be skimmed even after the first day.

    The first day the drilling rig was still floating. The oil that was spilled that day would have been easily cleaned up by BP’s equipment.

  10. Wayne says:

    I like how many are so willing to make excuses for this administration. He screwed up in not taking the Netherlands’ help and it is not the only screw up. Others with expertise in cleanup and whatnot offers of help have also been turn down.

    At the very least bring in the experts in handling such crises for advice. Why reinvent the wheel?

    This excuse of “we turn it over to BP and they were supposed to handle it” falls flat. Delegating a task to someone does not absolve you of your responsibilities in it getting done. The response to this crisis is the Federal government responsibility. They can use BP or whoever they want to do the job but if it doesn’t get done it is still the federal government fault.

    Hell James, you were an officer in the military. Did the excuse that you told someone else to do it and it didn’t happen, ever get you off the hook?

  11. Wayne says:

    How many days since has it been leaking? I am pretty sure that the Netherlands didn’t withdraw their offer after the third day.

  12. Wayne says:

    How many days since has it been leaking. I am pretty sure that the Netherlands didn’t withdraw their offer after the third day. Obama said he was on top of it from day one.

  13. Michael says:

    How many days since has it been leaking. I am pretty sure that the Netherlands didn’t withdraw their offer after the third day.

    Quite right, he should have accepted their offer weeks ago. However, the bigger failing has been not using the number of local sailors who are already here and ready to help.

    There is plenty of blame to be put on the administration’s handling of this, especially as time goes by, I just didn’t think criticizing decisions made on the third day was reasonable.

  14. Wayne says:

    Fair enough.

  15. Mathias says:

    For not accepting the Dutch to help with the oil spill before it did all this damage to our country!
    The only thing I can do as a VietNam Vet, born in the Netherlands is not to vote for you President Obama and those people responsible in the next election! Good luck in cleaning up this mess! And please keep the oil drilling away from our fantastic California Coast! We all need to protect and respect the earth, it is the only place we can live!

  16. anjin-san says:

    Delegating a task to someone does not absolve you of your responsibilities in it getting done.

    So Wayne, its the job of the nanny state to solve all problems? Thought the free markets would take care of this sort of thing all by themselves.

    That being said, it sounds like a bonehead decision.

  17. Judy says:

    As far as I’m concerned the oil spill and the DELAY is just another way to completely destroy America. Think about it!

  18. Elyse says:

    Regardless of what BP or the government was doing at the beginning – why wouldn’t one want the help – it was from the start a disaster.
    One would think that we would love some help from an ally – good relations on both sides – it would have been great to have help and for them to have offered and been accepted.
    If they wanted to wait to see what was happening – then they should have said not yet – but lets talk and make plans should it get worse…

  19. Wayne says:

    No it is not the job of the Government to solve “all” problems. It is it job to respond to disaster and national security. I want them to and it is their responsibility to respond to disaster like fires, large oil spills, attacks on us from foreign entities, etc. However that doesn’t mean they need to be involved in everything else.

  20. Scott says:

    Back on May 5th, the administration had offers from 13 nations. It’s now June 11th. I don’t blame Obama for the spill, but this was a major failing. We should have been thankfully accepting every available ship for cleanup.


  21. J. Prince says:

    Dear Pres. Obama, You continue with your Union Support above the protection of our Country.
    Your inaction will develope into a far worse situation that the Oil accident has caused.
    Your Politics will bring an end to our Country with your inexperience and left leanings.

  22. Connie says:

    All the politics do not help. The situation gets worse and worse. Yes, there is the Jones Law but
    Pres.Bush, during Katrina, issued a presidential order to bypass this law.

    I can only hope that help will come soon, real soon. It is devastating to see the the animals perish and the oil keeps gushing and gushing. WE NEED HELP, let’s set politics aside for now, accept all the help we can get.

  23. L cole says:

    Obama can’t stop the leak but the refusal to start immediate clean-up and stubborn response to Jindal is criminal. Now it’s hit the shores and it’s making cleanup workers sick. Every measure should have been taken to keep it from the shores.
    Imagine what the country would be saying about the lack of response by the administration if it were Bush.

  24. Pat Ford says:

    The dutch did not have the equipment ready and even they said the top kill method made sense to try first. Check out the Dutch news now that they are sending it over.


  25. Jason says:

    I say BS to the response that the admin thought it would be handled.
    I work for a Fire Department and when a call comes in for a possible fire, you get lots of equipment moving as fast as you can, with the idea that it is better to turn them around if not needed than be behind and ask for help.
    Same thoughts would apply here, but with lots more at stake overall.

  26. Michael says:

    Jason, do you typically also call in reinforcements from other states that will take days to arrive? Because that’s what the Dutch offer would be equivalent too.

  27. Darrell says:

    What this article fails to tell you is that initially both BP and the coast guard estimated a leak of 1k barrels / day.

    I disagree with Obama not reaching out to the Dutch or do more after 4/28/10 when a new estimate from NOAA came into being 5k barrels / day.

    If i’m not mistaken, 50 days of 5k barrels / day = 250k barrels = Exxon Valdez spill

    Even though the Exxon spill is not the largest oil spill, “It is considered to be one of the most devastating human-caused environmental disasters ever to occur in history.”

  28. Michael says:

    Even the 5k barrels/day estimate has been shown to be wildly off. The current minimum is 20k barrels/day, with an upper estimate as high as 100k barrels/day (I’ve seen one report saying 250k, but nowhere else). That’s one Exxon Valdez every 60 hours.

  29. Michael says:

    To put it another way, if the 100k estimate is accurate, this is the equivalent of 23 Exxon Valdez spills so far.

  30. vicki berger says:

    Why would he not lift the Jones Act in order to let the Dutch and other help us? What has he to gain? Soros is Brazilian oil….is that why?

  31. Darrell says:

    The basis of this article omits some truth. The coast guard was saying that there wasn’t any leaks….it wasn’t until sometime on the third day the estimate from the coast guard as well as BP estimated it to be 1000 Barrels or 42,000 gallons a day
    it wasn’t until 8 days after the explosion did NOAA estimate it to be 5000 barrels of oil per day

  32. John C says:

    Typical Republican response. While the country searches for solutions, the right searches for ways to distance themselves from the responsibility of causeing this inthe first place. Arm chair quaterbacks and after the fact no it alls are not a solution. I am sure when thi sis all over the right will review it and then tell us all the things that they can twist into looking worse than it is.

    There where no WMD’s in Iraq, Sadam had nothing to do wiht 9/11, there are no death panels in the healthcare bill, and the government has been on this since day one. Faux news can lie and deny al lthey want but they can’t change the facts with thier constant lies. Instead of reality and truth, the right thinks things are as they can convince thier cult members.

  33. Daisy Jones says:

    If you cannot smell it, nor cannot see it, you cannot imagine what it is destroying!! A whole way of life is being destroyed before our eyes. Help does not come. We are helping ourselves, but to no avail. A band-aid boom is out there to make us feel good! I am telling you non-coasties that all of us will suffer in the long run. The seafood is NOT good to eat, the shores are not safe to even walk on and the air has a smell that is probably infecting us all. Where are the activists? Where are the enviromentalists that are receiving the “awards” for helping save our planet! We need help down here now, not later! Our houses are worth less, our jobs are lost and many birds and fish
    and wildlife will be lost for what? The oyster beds are being ruined little by little. What more of a disaster do you want? Those of you who can only pray, pray!! The end is not in site!

    By a Local Gulf Coast Resident