Our own government has quietly admitted that America needs foreign help to handle the oil spill — almost two months after pushing that help away.

Far more oil could have been intercepted before it fouled the Gulf Coast.  So why hasn’t our government apologized?

By refusing foreign assistance, we banned both the latest technology and cleanup vessels that far exceed the capacity of America’s oil spill response vessels (OSRV’s).  We rejected ships with ten times the capability of the vessels we used instead.

In a quiet announcement on June 18, the Federal On-Scene Coordinator (FOSC) finally agreed that we need help, describing a conclusion reached two days before:

. . . the FOSC, in coordination with other federal agencies, determined on June 16, 2010, pursuant to 46 U.S.C. §55113, that there are an insufficient number of specialized oil skimming vessels in the U.S. to keep pace with the unprecedented levels of oil discharges in the Gulf of Mexico. Based upon this determination, foreign specialized skimming vessels may be deployed to response operations.

Technically, the Jones Act remains un-waived and continues to restrict use of foreign vessels other than OSRV’s.  Officials invoked only a limited exemption that was put into law after Hurricane Katrina.

But by their delay, our bureaucracy and government regulation have made a horrible situation even worse.  There were two weeks between the April 20 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon and the time when the first oil made landfall.  And it was almost six additional weeks before specialized equipment from overseas was approved by our government for limited use.

The Dutch formally offered help on April 25.  Not until June 14th did the U.S. State Department announce that some foreign help would be welcomed from the 17 nations who had been trying to assist.

We violated a basic rule of oil spills: “The key to avoiding catastrophic damage and extreme liability is a fast response.”

So what’s different about the foreign equipment that at long last is being deployed?  Capacity, for one.  They can do far more and do it more quickly.

To protect the North Sea—a major petroleum-producing area—Europe created cooperatives such as Norway’s Norwegian Clean Seas Association for Operating Companies (NOFO), assembling resources that far surpass America’s.

The largest American OSRV I’ve found has only a 4,000 barrel capacity.  Compare that to Norway’s new cleanup standards, which state, “An active effort must always be made to achieve the largest possible tank capacity. Under no circumstances must the tank capacity for storage of recovered oil be less than 1 500 m³.”  1,500 cubic meters is 9,400 barrels.  None of our U.S. oil recovery vessels appear to come even close to this standard.

The European Union maintains a multi-faceted inventory of OSRV’s.  The Netherlands alone lists eleven ships that exceed this 9,400-barrel capacity, including vessels like the Geopotes 14 (pictured) that reportedly can pick up and contain 47,000 barrels at a time.  That’s ten times larger than any U.S. ship we’ve been using.

Collecting more oil in each run enables more time spent collecting oil and less time carrying oil back to a storage facility.

Several Democrats in Congress have joined the calls to get our bureaucracy out of the way.  Rep. Corinne Brown (D, FL) said at a hearing, “We are in emergency mode; we need skimmers. . . .  There are small boats, I guess, but we need the big ones.  I understand they are available in other countries.”

We indeed need the big cleanup ships that America must get from overseas.   Who knows how many livelihoods—and how much of the environment—would have been spared if our government had not drug its bureaucratic feet and invited them two months ago?

BP has apologized.  And still must be held accountable.  But where’s the apology from our government—and the accountability?

Ernest Istook, former U.S. Congressman from Oklahoma, is a distinguished fellow at The Heritage Foundation.