May 11, 2010— -- 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.
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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."
BP Oil Spill
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.
The nation has been gripped by scenes of a massive oil slick spreading across the Gulf of Mexico since the BP-operated Horizon Deepwater rig exploded April 20 and sank two days later — leaving behind a massive oil leak that has yet to be contained.
Since then, the government has faced questions about why it took so long to declare the spill an emergency, why it didn't use Pentagon planes sooner to spray dispersants, and why it didn't have a ready supply of specialized booms to contain and burn the growing oil slick.
And both industry and federal officials have been forced to scramble to develop on-the-fly, untested technological solutions — such as concrete and steel containment domes and well plugs made of shredded tires and golf balls — to try to contain the epic leak on the sea floor, more than a mile under water.
Oil industry officials told members of Congress Tuesday that new technology is being used to combat the ongoing spill. In response to questions, they identified the use of dispersants to attack the spill under water as a new approach that had been honed over the past several years. But they also acknowledged that a spill at this depth has presented them with problems they weren't prepared for.
"I think, after this is under control and thought about in hindsight, there will be some ideas about how to make the subsea intervention and response better," said BP America's chairman and president, Lamar McKay. "I think we're learning right now as we go."
U.S. officials said in interviews that the elaborate dry runs taught them important lessons that are making the ongoing response stronger and more effective. But they also acknowledged that they have yet to resolve some of the persistent problems related to communication, coordination and technology – problems that surfaced during the drill conducted March 24-25 in New England, simulating a response to an oil tanker leaking 18 million gallons of crude after a collision off the coast of Maine.
"Every exercise you do, you come out with the question of whether your communication skills are up to the challenge," Coast Guard Lt. Kelly Dietrich said in an interview.
But Dietrich said the Coast Guard and its federal allies have made steady improvement through the training exercises and don't deserve some of the criticisms that have been raised by lawmakers and residents in the Gulf.
"We always go out with full force," she said. "It always seems to the public that it seems slow because most people aren't involved in the preparatory work."
For more on the government's preparations for a major oil spill off the U.S. coast, visit the Center for Public Integrity.
John Solomon and Aaron Mehta are reporters with the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative journalism organization.
ABC News' Asa Eslocker contributed to this report.Click Here for the Blotter Homepage.