Oil cleanup technology hasn't kept pace

Thick, heavy oil floats in the water of Chandeleur Sound, about 40 miles northeast of Venice, La.
By Steven Mufson
Tuesday, May 4, 2010

In 1969, when people still used manual typewriters and rotary telephones, a Union Oil well blew out five miles off the coast of Santa Barbara, Calif. People attacked the oil washing ashore by skimming it off the surface, dispersing it with chemicals, and soaking it up with straw and other materials.

Forty-one years and many generations of technology later, BP is attacking the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico with techniques similar to those used in Santa Barbara. And just as in those days, choppy water and strong winds can make it impossible to use those tools to bottle up oil once it has leaked into open seas.

"Taking proper care of the oil and then the pollution is damn near the same as what we see today," said Robert G. Bea, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California at Berkeley who spent 16 years working for Shell Oil. "We're still chasing it around with Scott towels."

Unlike the 1969 Santa Barbara and 1989 Exxon Valdez spills, which were close to shore and coated coastlines, the well that blew up April 20 while being drilled by Transocean's Deepwater Horizon rig is much farther out and has given BP and federal authorities an extra week or more to respond to the oil leaking into the gulf.

Yet the more than 100 boats and dozens of aircraft deployed by BP and the U.S. Coast Guard have been unable to prevent it from creeping up to land and threatening the environment. "The absolute objective is to contain it in the offshore environment," BP chief executive Tony Hayward said optimistically Wednesday. By Friday, it had started to touch Louisiana's shores.

"From the mid-'80s, it is the same thing," said Lois Epstein, an Alaska-based engineering and policy consultant to nonprofit conservation organizations. "At the time of the Valdez spill, we were utilizing booming and dispersants and controlled burns -- the same three major techniques as now."

The reason little has changed, said Byron W. King, an energy analyst at Agora Financial, is a "failure of imagination."

"The industry says it never had a blowout," he said, and as a result the oil "industry is not going to spend good money on problems that it says aren't there." But King said that "you need new technology to deal with the problems that your other new technology got you." And he said that the federal government, instead of just collecting its royalties, should have made sure that research took place.

The most visible tool for containing the oil slick is the long string of floating plastic booms. Half a million feet of booms are on hand and about half of them have been set out so far, but they work best in calm seas.

"They presume oil is floating on the surface and the sea is still," said Hammond Eve, a former specialist in the environmental impact of offshore drilling at the Minerals Management Service who lives just east of New Orleans. "The sea is certainly not still now. They don't stick up very high. The waves are going right over them, the oil's going right over them. They don't work very well."

Burning oil on the water surface is dramatic but of limited use. It also requires calm seas to corral oil where it's thickest and drag it to a spot where it can be ignited with flares. Last week BP and the Coast Guard did that in what they described as a test; they burned 100 barrels of oil, a tiny fraction of what's pouring from the well. They said later burns could consume as much as 1,000 barrels of oil, still less than the 5,000 barrels a day that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates is leaking into the gulf.

Bad weather has made it impossible to do a second burn. And the technique sends thick, black clouds of smoke into the atmosphere -- also bad for the environment and possibly the lungs.

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