Smart ideas for cleaning up the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico could very well come from entrepreneurs and small business owners, but only if people with sound proposals can get the attention of BP or government agencies.

That’s proving difficult, according to actor Kevin Costner and other business owners who testified before the Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee recently. The problems they are encountering could mean that solutions deserving consideration will be overlooked.
Ocean Therapy Solutions, which Costner owns, did get a response from BP, which tested his cleanup equipment and then ordered 32 of the company’s machines.

But he was still critical of the process. “You should know that negotiating your way through the bureaucratic maze that currently exists is like trying to play a video game that nobody can master,” he told the Senate committee.

An official with another company had similar frustrations. “Simply put, we were not clear on who is really making the decisions, and I am not sure that any business small or large knows how best to be heard,” said Heather Baird, vice president of a Massachusetts-based company that manufactures oil-eating microbes.

Sen. Mary Landrieu, who chairs the committee, called the response unacceptable and said that she’s received complaints from constituents. Sen. David Vitter said he had forwarded solutions by three Louisiana companies only to get “automated responses.”

The Coast Guard set up an interagency assessment program for alternative technologies earlier in June, but so far, the Coast Guard has submitted only one concept out of 1,900, Rear Adm. Ronald Rabago testified. None have been accepted. And while the Coast Guard is expanding efforts to evaluate proposals, the current pace suggests that the agency is overwhelmed.

It would make sense, then, for the Coast Guard to get help vetting the proposals. Eric Smith, associate director of the Tulane University Energy Center, suggested such an approach at the hearing. The government could enter into contracts with universities to separate promising proposals from those that lack merit, he said.

That’s a good idea, and the Coast Guard ought to jump at it.

Editor’s Note: The editorial that appears above first appeared in The Times-Picayune of New Orleans on June 22. It was reprinted here with permission from The Associated Press. The views represented in the editorial are not necessarily those of the South Florida Times.