Coast Guard embarking on too many missions, some say

Oil issues given greater priority prior to 9/11

By Joe Stephens
Washington Post / August 15, 2010

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WASHINGTON — The Coast Guard has in recent years fought international terrorism, defended Iraqi pipelines, and patrolled for pirates in the Arabian Sea.

Its work in such high-visibility missions accelerated after Sept. 11, 2001, when Congress swept the Coast Guard into the Homeland Security Department. More funding followed.

But the changes had the unintended consequence of lowering the profile of the Coast Guard’s vital programs related to oil. “Priorities changed,’’ a 2002 Coast Guard budget report said.

Internal and congressional studies highlighted the difficulty the service faces in balancing its many added responsibilities. “Oil-spill issues were not at the top of the list,’’ said retired Captain Lawson Brigham, a former strategic planner for the Coast Guard.

When Coast Guard inspectors board offshore drilling rigs such as the Deepwater Horizon, which exploded and killed 11 workers in April, they rely on regulations put in place three decades ago, when offshore drilling operations were far less sophisticated, records show.

The Coast Guard acknowledged 11 years ago in a little-noticed disclosure that its regulations had “not kept pace with the changing offshore technology or the safety problems it creates.’’

Since the Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, investigations into oversight gaps have focused on systemic problems within the Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service, which has been renamed and revamped in recent weeks.

But the Coast Guard, which shared oversight with the Minerals Management Service, has largely escaped scrutiny. While the latter inspected drilling equipment, the Coast Guard inspected rigs for worker safety. It also set standards for companies that clean up spills and has coordinated the joint response to the spill in the gulf.

Some analysts said the spill highlights the need to rethink Coast Guard priorities. In the past 35 years, Congress has handed the agency at least 27 new responsibilities, according to a tally by Representative James Oberstar, a Minnesota Democrat who is chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

“They just don’t have enough personnel to carry out all those missions,’’ said Oberstar, who favors severing the Coast Guard from the Homeland Security Department. “That’s just not possible.’’

Coast Guard officials said they did not have budget figures to compare how much is spent on oil-related programs now and before Sept. 11, 2001.

Even current budget numbers for these programs are unclear, because spending falls into two categories that encompass many other activities, including fighting invasive species and oversight of recreational boating. Marine environmental protection was allotted 2 percent of this year’s operating expenses, marine safety 8 percent.

The Coast Guard said that before 2001, the service was organized differently. A private study in 2003 by one Coast Guard officer calculated that, before the attacks, marine environmental programs accounted for 11 percent of operating funds and marine safety accounted for 14 percent. Congressional staff members said the lack of reliable figures has complicated their efforts to ensure that vital programs are not neglected.

Juggling diverse missions is far from the only challenge the Coast Guard faces. Its maritime fleet is aging, and a long-delayed fleet-modernization plan has suffered design flaws and cost overruns; it is now under Justice Department scrutiny. The White House has recommended budget cuts. The Coast Guard’s marine-safety programs have suffered a drain as personnel sought higher-profile assignments.

Senior Coast Guard officials said the service’s many missions make it stronger because ships patrolling for terrorists might happen across drug smugglers or an oil slick. They said that crews develop complementary skills and that combining missions saves money. Officials point out that until April, oil spills had decreased dramatically. They said mission statistics do not reflect the division of labor at sea, where crews are ready for whatever comes their way.

“The Coast Guard takes its role as an environmental-response agency seriously,’’ said Captain Anthony Lloyd, chief of the Office of Incident Management and Preparedness.

But even some defenders of the Coast Guard fear that it is edging toward crisis.

“It’s basically at the breaking point,’’ said retired Coast Guard Commander Stephen Flynn.

Two months before the gulf blowout, the Obama administration proposed a 3 percent cut in Coast Guard funding and active-duty personnel. The plan would slash 1,100 military personnel and decommission the National Strike Force Coordination Center, which manages oil-spill response.

“Not a good idea,’’ Oberstar said.