Coast Guard seeks private sector oil spill solutions

Clouds of smoke billow up from controlled burns in the Gulf of Mexico on May 19, 2010. Clouds of smoke billow up from controlled burns in the Gulf of Mexico on May 19, 2010. Defense Department

Do you know how to stop the massive Deepwater Horizon oil spill? Then the Coast Guard wants to hear from you.

On Friday, the Coast Guard Research and Development Center, along with several interagency partners, issued a request from vendors, scientists, government laboratories and nonprofits for ideas on how to stop, contain and clean up the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history.

The broad agency announcement calls for the submission of white paper ideas on five distinct problem areas: tracking and detecting oil; controlling or shutting off the wellhead; developing traditional and alternative oil spill response technologies, damage assessments; and restoration.

The solicitation states that the papers should concentrate "on the underlying technology that supports the solution and describe how the solution will benefit the identified gap area. Focus content on the operational and logistical requirements that are needed to obtain and deploy this particular solution including quantity, availability and scalability of the solution."

The proposals, which will be accepted for one year, also should include details of any previous testing and evaluation and the estimated price of implementing the solution. Papers will be screened based on scientific and technical merit, feasibility, deployability, the availability of the proposed solution and cost.

Small businesses are encouraged to submit their plans, although the Coast Guard noted work will not be set aside for any socioeconomic group.

An interagency group comprised of officials from the Coast Guard, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Agriculture and Interior departments, Minerals Management Service, and Environmental Protection Agency will review the white papers.

If a plan shows immediate promise, the work group will forward it to Rear Adm. James Watson, the federal on-scene coordinator for the Deepwater Horizon response, for further action, including contract actions by BP or federal agencies.

The solicitation represents somewhat of an about-face for the Coast Guard, which previously indicated it was not planning to hire contractors to respond to the oil spill crisis. But, BP's inability to stem the flow of oil at the wellhead could have prompted the Obama administration to seek outside solutions.

"We're adapting to an enemy that changes," Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the national incident commander for the spill said during a Monday morning White House press briefing. "The nature of this oil spill has changed continuously from day one."

So far, 17 companies, universities or individuals have expressed formal interest in submitting their proposals. Interested parties can submit their white paper here.

The Coast Guard is not the only federal agency soliciting the help of contractors in responding to the spill.

Interior issued a sole-source contract with the National Academy of Engineering to conduct an independent investigation of the root causes of the disaster. Interior's Fish and Wildlife Service also issued a no-bid contract worth more than $83,000 to occupy 15 hotel rooms on Alabama's eastern shore for 60 days beginning on May 16. The Food and Drug Administration, meanwhile, is purchasing technology to clean animal tissue and to swiftly analyze odors and volatile organic compounds.

Procurement experts suspect the government could begin turning increasingly to the private sector to contain the damage from the spill, often through sole-source contracts that can be issued quickly and with increased flexibility.

"In these circumstances, a sole-source contract can be very appropriate," said Howard Wolf-Rodda, a contracting attorney with the law firm of Brown Rudnick in Washington. "And, these may not necessarily be perfect procurements. It's not ideal but there is a trade-off that needs to be made."

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