David R. Henderson  

Exacerbating Problems Always

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First, the Environmental Protection Agency can relax restrictions on the amount of oil in discharged water, currently limited to 15 parts per million. In normal times, this rule sensibly controls the amount of pollution that can be added to relatively clean ocean water. But this is not a normal time. Various skimmers and tankers (some of them very large) are available that could eliminate most of the oil from seawater, discharging the mostly clean water while storing the oil onboard. While this would clean vast amounts of water efficiently, the EPA is unwilling to grant a temporary waiver of its regulations.
This is from Paul Rubin's July 2 article in the Wall Street Journal, "Why is the Gulf Cleanup So Slow?" Thus my new name, in the title, for what EPA stands for.

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COMMENTS (12 to date)
MernaMoose writes:

While this would clean vast amounts of water efficiently, the EPA is unwilling to grant a temporary waiver of its regulations.

Because it'd take away Washington's punching bag. And then there wouldn't be (yet another) excuse to Do Something, even if it's wrong.

david writes:

Rubin is unfortunately mistaken on the Jones Act. Here is factcheck.org: http://www.factcheck.org/2010/06/oil-spill-foreign-help-and-the-jones-act/ Should the Jones Act be repealed nonetheless? Possibly, but it still isn't relevant in this case.

As for oil skimmers, Rubin fails to mention that the skimmers require the numerous government and private-sector organizations clear their own ships from the area (this is why they require both EPA and Coast Guard approval - someone has to chase other ships away, using force if necessary). So there are costs to using this particular method, and - contra Rubin's description - the effectiveness of assorted skimmers can be dubious.

The EPA can in fact grant waivers to the 15ppm restriction under the law; as of today it is currently testing the Taiwanese "A Whale" Rubin mentions in a specially cleared area in the Gulf. And the Dutch government skimmers were approved two weeks ago, so Rubin should at least update his facts.

Boonton writes:

Rubin claims skimmers can clean almost all of the oil from the Gulf. It's amazing how broad based his knowledge is, who would have thought the Economics Phd program at Emory University would have included detailed classes on maritime engineering and oceanic chemistry.

david writes:

@Boonton

To be fair, I don't think Rubin is that ignorant; I think he's just playing to his expected audience. He probably would be more circumspect in publications targeted at 'wonkish' audiences.

We see this sort of targeting with writers like Krugman too - anything that doesn't toe the party line gets relegated to his blog, anything that does goes to his NYT column - so this is very much a bipartisan thing. Pundits need to eat too, and if popular audiences like scoring political points, then political points it is.

Boonton writes:

Here's another oddity, why exactly is there supposedly a large fleet of skimmers that can separate oil from water but not purify water below 15 ppm before releasing it?

One has to wonder what type of capitalism financed such an odd investment given that EPA regulations forbid such a release and even if they were waived, giant ocean spills are quite rare in these parts.

Rubin seems unaware that right now tankers are collecting oily water and delivering it to land facilities that skim off the usable oil and bury the remaining contaminated water. At worse the tankers are only filling up quicker due to not being able to dump oily water back out. (And I'm skeptical of that given that I haven't seen anything cited that shows the tankers have technology to do even an inferior job of splitting oil and water in mass quantities on board).

Put a piece that lacks any citations that can be checked with a huge blundering about a major fact (the Jones Act only applies to foreign trade coming into US ports, no waiver is required as the US is not importing any merchandise from helpful skimmers) and we've got basically a shoddy piece of hack journalism being amplified by a scholar who fails to give it even preliminary scrutiny because it tells an ideological story he likes.

Boonton writes:

david

To be fair, I don't think Rubin is that ignorant; I think he's just playing to his expected audience. He probably would be more circumspect in publications targeted at 'wonkish' audiences.

The word you are looking for is "lie." An economist especially is aware of the difference between saying something like "we can collect a lot more oil than we currently are" and "we can collect most of the oil". It is ethical for a scholar to present a 'dumbed down' or simplified version of his research to a general audience, it's even ethical for him to be a partisan in opinion journalism. Bald faced dishonesty, though, is unethical. And it doesn't get redeemed because his audience 'wants to be lied too'.

Dan Weber writes:
why exactly is there supposedly a large fleet of skimmers that can separate oil from water but not purify water below 15 ppm before releasing it?

One has to wonder what type of capitalism financed such an odd investment given that EPA regulations forbid such a release and even if they were waived, giant ocean spills are quite rare in these parts.

This really isn't hard to understand at all. There exist things that can extract oil from water, but they cannot extract so much that, given that they are taking in (say) a 50/50 mix, they cannot put out a 99.9985/0.0015 mix. Maybe they can put out a 90/10 mix, which would, to a first-order approximation, be a good win.

There are other issues that david mentions that might be alternative explanations for why they haven't been approved.

Boonton writes:

This doesn't address my question.

I'm not asking why its hard to skim oil from water leaving left over water that has less than 15 ppm oil. It's that Ruben's piece makes no sense if you think about it for more than a few moments. Given that

1. Massive oil spills are rare.
2. The EPA prohibits dumping oily water into the ocean.

Why would there be a fleet of oil skimmers just itching to help out in the Gulf? The fact is there isn't. Since oil spills are expected to be small the skimmers and tankers mostly are designed to just suck up an entire spill water an all and let an onshore facility do the heavy work of breaking the mix into useable oil, oil waste, oily water and pure water.

With the exception of the 'A Whale' experimental ship (which has been retrofitted over the last few months with the purpose of being used in the Gulf), there simply is no fleet of skimmers being denied EPA waivers and if tomorrow the EPA announced a universal, blanket waiver it would make no difference in the Gulf.

Challenge: Google this, you'll find the right wing echo-chamber picking up this story and repeating it ad nausem. You will not find, though, a single example of an actual boat applying for a waiver to the EPA and being told no.

Curt writes:

I'm afraid this post is another example of what I'd call Expecting Predictable Answers from David Henderson...

While Bryan and Arnold often seem to be actually thinking and open to new ideas, I don't see the same level of originality from David, unfortunately.

Duracom writes:

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Robert Turnage writes:

Boonton: I believe the answer to your question is that these skimmers being referred to are from other countries, such as Taiwan and the Netherlands. They don't answer to the EPA, so they aren't built to EPA specs.

Boonton writes:

Robert,

Been following this story:

The 'A Whale' skimmer was built by a Taiwanese tycoon who appears to have been motivated both by the desire for publicity and a desire to 'save the day'. It was built hastily after the explosion and no one is sure it will work.

There are no EPA specs on skimmers. The EPA forbids you from dumping oil US ocean waters, whether or not your a US or Taiwanese ship. The 'A Whale' has applied for (and almost certainly will get) a waiver from the EPA.

The skimmers that are operating now were designed to collect small amounts of oil in relatively calm waters. Most are not able to get close to the well because they cannot handle the high seas. If the 'A Whale' works it will single handedly collect more oil than the hundreds of struggling skimmers have to date. But keep in mind the A Whale only exists because of the disaster.

There simply is no fleet of skimmers either in or outside the US that are being held up by the EPA because they are unable to clean water to less than 15 ppm. Why not? Because there was no economic reason to build them. Why Because till now oil spills are mostly small. Instead of carrying heavy and bulky equipment to clean water, it would be easier to just suck up the entire spill, water and all, and bring it to an onshore disposal facility.

The WSJ piece is worse than mistaken, its a bald faced lie.

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