"The majors who go out and drill in deep water have all the expertise – the government does not," says David Pettit, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "When it comes to what happens when the oil hits the water, the oil companies don't have a monopoly on what to do. Even using the word expertise is laughable when you see what's going on out there. They're clearly making it up as they go along."
For all the complaints from state and local officials about red tape and poor coordination in the federal response, it's come a long way since the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989. "The command structure in the early days of the Exxon Valdez spill underwent a complete meltdown," says Rick Kurtz, a political scientist at Central Michigan University, who, as an analyst in the National Park Service's Anchorage office at the time, wrote a lessons-learned report on the response.
Out of that came the unified command structure in place today – delineating the duties of the Coast Guard, state and local officials, and the oil company responsible for the spill. While not everything has gone roller-bearing smooth, at least the federal government quickly designated an "incident commander and everybody knows who's in charge," notes Mr. Pettit.