Skill in Quick Analysis Lands Alum at Center of Oil Spill Response

The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the largest in U.S. history, has created an equally large response by the government at all levels. More than 45,000 people are involved in the clean-up and containment efforts, with a fleet of 5,000 response boats in the Gulf.

“This is roughly equivalent to the number of landing craft at D-Day in World War II,” said Coast Guard Commander Mark Moland MPP’04.  Moland has those kinds of numbers at his fingertips because he plays a key role in that response, organizing the daily conference call on the spill between the White House, the governors of the five Gulf Coast states and the National Incident Command. 

Nine days after the collapse of the Deepwater Horizon oil platform, the event was designated a “spill of national significance” by the Department of Homeland Security. This triggered the appointment of Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen as the National Incident Commander to coordinate the national response. Admiral Allen had been overseeing the Coast Guard operation in the Gulf since the April 20 explosion. 

The situation has been volatile, due to the magnitude of the spill and the constantly changing environment at the scene. More than 400 controlled burns consumed over one million gallons of oil. Hundreds of skimmers captured 34 million gallons of oily water over three months.  BP made several unsuccessful attempts to stop the leak until managing to cap it on July 15.  Then work halted as the site was evacuated when Tropical Storm Bonnie entered the Gulf.

“While the well was open, it was like a whole new spill every day,” said Moland. 

When the spill began, Moland was stationed in Memphis, Tenn., as the chief of response for the Coast Guard Sector Lower Mississippi River, responsible for 2,200 miles of inland waterways. The call came for senior officers to help with the Gulf response. Legislative affairs and policy were on the list of needed experience, so Moland sent his resume in on Friday. Later that day, he got a call asking if he could be at the National Incident Command center in Washington, D.C., by 7 a.m. on Monday, May 24.

“It was the resume' that Donna (Career Services Director Donna Dyer) helped design,” he said. “One day I was in Memphis, the next day I was handing notes to the admiral while he was on the phone with the president.”

In addition to his credentials in public policy, Moland had field experience in environmental clean-up and public relations.  A 1994 graduate of the Coast Guard Academy, Moland was assistant operations and training officer in the mid-Atlantic area from 1996-1999. There he coordinated battery recovery operations, retrieving spent batteries from buoys and lighthouse stations that had been buried or tossed into the water.  He then coordinated the environmental hazard clean-up and disposal of the batteries. While stationed in Buffalo, N.Y., Moland was also a public affairs officer, dealing with local media and law enforcement.

After graduating from Sanford’s MPP program, Moland taught public policymaking at the Coast Guard Academy from 2004 to 2008, where he was also assistant dean of academics.  He taught one of his final courses, “Leadership and Humanitarian Crises” with former Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Admiral James Loy.  

Moland’s first assignment at the Intergovernmental Affairs Office was answering Congressional questions about the spill. After a week, his ability to write policy analysis landed him the responsibility for creating the documents for the daily call between the White House, governors and involved agencies.

For the past two months, his day has begun at 5:30 a.m., when he arrives at the office and reviews operational points about the spill that have come in overnight. He drafts up-to-date talking points for Rear Admiral Peter Neffenger, the deputy National Incident Commander. Then he runs a final fact-check on the document that addresses the questions from the previous day’s call. At 7 a.m., he sends out the document to Admiral Allen, the White House staff, the governors and the 18 other government agencies involved in the spill.  At 7:30, there is a morning staff meeting with Allen, Neffenger and other officials.  Moland then prepares the operational update for the daily call.

At 9 a.m., there is a pre-conference call to the White House. The day’s big conference call with the governors is at 9:15.  Moland acts as secretary during the call, noting questions that require answers.  Then he has a call with the White House staff and intergovernmental agencies, during which they decide how to address the developing challenges.  He sends notes to the relevant agencies, which can range from the Department of Labor to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  Then, he breaks for lunch. 

His afternoons are spent drafting the document for the next day’s call, which can run from 10 to 30 pages. Status memos and policy papers from the different agencies come to his desk and Moland makes sure all the questions are addressed in the document.  He also sets the agenda for the next day’s call, which happens seven days a week. 

“The ability to do good, quick policy analysis has carried me a long way,” he says.  “It’s so adaptable to unexpected circumstances.”  His course work at Sanford helped him develop that skill. His work is well known throughout the leadership of the response effort.  When introduced to Valerie Jarrett, special advisor to the president, she recognized him as “the talking points guy.”

Moland hopes to return to his post in Memphis sometime in August and rejoin his family.  His 30-day assignment has stretched into 60 plus, and he has had only four days off to visit his wife Shana and their two daughters.

“This has reinforced the ideal of passionate service for me,” he said.  Environmental stewardship has always been a part of the Coast Guard mission, and “this has been greatest environmental challenge that the Coast Guard has ever faced.”