Thad Allen was just a few weeks away from retiring as the commandant of the Coast Guard when the Deepwater Horizon exploded on April 20, 2010, beginning the worst oil spill in U.S. history. Allen who had also run much of the response to Hurricane Katrina was later made national incident commander of the Unified Command for the oil spill. That title meant he was in charge of the often unruly government-industry team charged with shutting the blown well and marshalling defenses against the oil. Now retired and a senior fellow at the Rand Corp., Allen spoke to TIME's Bryan Walsh about the blowout, BP's schizophrenia and the future of offshore drilling.
When during the early days of the oil-spill response did it become clear to you just how big this event was going to be?
For my opinion it was on the 22nd of April, when the Deepwater Horizon rig sunk. We did not know then the full impact of the spill or the results, but we knew then it would be a catastrophic event.
Was there anything in your experience in the Coast Guard to prepare you for dealing with an active, underwater blowout, along with a major oil spill?
We had never had an event like this in the history of the Coast Guard. In the 20 years since the [Exxon] Valdez spill, we had focused on making sure there would never be another tanker accident. All our spill response and the regulatory regime was focused on trying to protect the oil being transferred, but in the meantime, the industry moved offshore and went way deep under a different set of rules and regulations. We had a disconnect on how that was maintained.
How much did the fact that you were trying to deal with a blowout deep under the water complicate the overall response?
Throughout the entire response, there was no way for humans to access the event. Everything we knew was from an ROV [remotely operated vehicle] or a sensor that we put down there. We had to manage things basically as you would for an event in outer space. I said it many times and it's still true: this was much closer to Apollo 13 than Hurricane Katrina.
It was often confusing to people on the ground that BP the party responsible for the oil spill also seemed to be in charge of the response. Was that the case, and did the company's role hold back the cleanup efforts?
First of all, the means of production to do oil exploration globally lies with the private sector, not the government. We often asked [ourselves] whether we might be able to find that capability elsewhere, and the answer was no. [That] is something we may need to look at in the future. There is an ongoing debate regarding BP's role as the responsible party and whether or not they could effectively do the right thing if they also had the responsibility to act in their shareholders' benefit.
How did BP deal with that?
They were basically trying to play the role of someone remediating a problem they themselves had caused. You might never be able to separate out the corporate responsibility [from] what they are required to do by law. If that's a problem, we need to discuss it in the future because it was the hardest thing I had to explain to people. There was a cognitive dissonance about the dual role of BP, but that was the way the law was set.
Was that primarily a problem of communication actually having to explain to people what BP was doing or did BP's split role create operational obstacles?
I don't think it was a big deal operationally because I had the legal authority to direct BP to take any appropriate action, and if they didn't, they were subject to penalties. That was a pretty big stick to hold over them. It was a continual challenge to explain to the American public and local leaders what was going on. They were accustomed to a disaster-response system where locals were in charge, and if the feds get involved they are giving support. This action had a very different legal framework that assumed federal preemption for the response to the spill.
What else did we learn from this response that could be put in place before the next accident like this?
We have already begun to move on having an oil-containment and oil-capping system that will be on standby and which can be brought to a well much faster. It took 85 days from when the rig sank to cap the well. We could do that much more quickly. The new drilling permits that have been issued all require companies to have a capping system ready in case of a blowout.
The next big frontier for offshore drilling is the Arctic. Would we be ready to respond to an accident or spill in that remote environment?
Having been up there every summer as the commandant of the Coast Guard, I've seen the limited infrastructure we have in places like Point Barrow [on the northern shore of Alaska]. We have to see if that infrastructure is sufficient to support a Coast Guard operation. We need to see whether we could forward deploy aircraft and cutters and conduct an actual operation. But I think we'd have both infrastructure and resource problems up there. Over the long term we need to find a way to institutionalize resource capability there.
One of the most controversial elements of the oil-spill response was the sheer amount of chemical dispersants used on the environment. Looking back, was that the right decision?
I think it generally was. What drove the dispersant discussion was the fact that we had contemplated using dispersants during the Valdez response, but we missed our window. Two things made this different this time. One was the sheer volume of the spill, and the second was the novel use of dispersants at the wellhead itself before the oil made it to the surface. We wouldn't necessarily want to change the procedure, but when you have this much public concern and scrutiny, you need to be careful.