Three weeks before the massive Gulf oil rig explosion, U.S Coast Guard officials led an elaborate exercise in which they practiced their response to a major oil spill – one of four dry runs over the past decade that foreshadowed many of the weaknesses in coordination, communication, expertise and technology that are now hampering the federal response to the oil rig disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
Watch Brian Ross' full report tonight on World News with Diane Sawyer at 6:30pm and Nightline at 11:30pm.
According to interviews and after-action reports obtained in a joint investigation by ABC News and the Center for Public Integrity, the drills exposed flaws in the nation's readiness for what they termed an oil spill of national significance.
As early as 2002, the practice runs showed that oil companies not only lacked updated equipment to mount an effective response to a spill, but would need to be forced by the government to invest in better technology.
"Without requirements in place to require use of new response technologies they will not be developed and deployed adequately," said an after-action report from the summer 2002 drill that simulated an oil leak from a sunken rig in the Gulf of Mexico that was eerily similar to the current disaster. "There is little incentive for [oil companies] to invest in them and therefore, little incentive for technology companies to develop or refine these technologies further."
Those requirements were never forced on the companies and, as a result, the oil spill response underway in the Gulf is being mounted with booms and skimmers that some industry experts described as antiquated and of limited value.
"The technology that's being used on the surface is over 30 years old," said Jerome Milgram, a professor of marine technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "I can say this. I don't see any practical effect for putting out booms when the sea conditions are such that the booms are totally ineffective."
Yet, BP's "worst case" scenario for a huge oil spill in the Gulf relies heavily on being able to boom and skim a half million barrels a day, according to the oil spill response plan the company filed with federal regulators.
"That is fantasy and fraud," said Carl Pope, chairman of the Sierra Club. "These are not serious plans, and yet the government accepts them as a basis for drilling."
The practice drills, conducted in 2002, 2004, 2007, and most recently in March, also exposed oil company fears about losing control of the information being released to the public during a major spill.
Several of the reports reference the industry's insistence on protecting "proprietary" information. Now, as oil continues to gush, BP America is refusing to make public its video feeds of the actual spill site, despite media and government requests. The feeds could help independent experts determine whether BP's estimate that the well is leaking 5,000 barrels of oil a day are realistic.