Oil cleanup technology hasn't kept pace

By Steven Mufson
Tuesday, May 4, 2010; A01

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.

BP and the Coast Guard have also used ships to skim oil from the surface of the water. This also works best in calm seas; good weather during the first week after the spill helped. By Monday morning, the oil spill response teams had recovered more than a million gallons of an oil and water mixture, but much of it is seawater. The layer of oil on the surface is thin, measured in microns in most places and as thick as 0.1 millimeters in others, so skimming is a slow process. BP's Hayward said it has the appearance of iced tea.

BP and federal agencies have also sprayed more than 156,000 gallons of chemicals to help disperse the oil at the surface and, with the help of a robotic submarine, near the source of the leak.

"It's a good thing," said Eve, the retired minerals-management expert. "If you get oil on your hands, and wash in dish detergent, the nature of the oil changes. It's not clinging to you. It's become something with different properties so it doesn't have the harmful impacts."

Some of the oil breaks down in the water, and research has gone into biologically friendly agents that would speed up the work nature does in breaking down oil. But the effects of such agents are not well understood, and it isn't clear what kind of chemicals BP is using.

Environmental groups caution that the chemicals can be harmful and disperse the oil under the surface of the water, where it causes different kinds of problems.

"Dispersants . . . are toxic to marine life and so there are trade-offs to consider," said David Pettit of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "And just because humans can't see oil on the surface doesn't mean it's not still in the water column, affecting marine life from plankton to whales."

"The objective of dispersant use is to enhance the amount of oil that physically mixes into the water column, reducing the potential that a surface slick will contaminate shoreline habitats or come into contact with birds, marine mammals, or other organisms that exist on the water surface or shoreline," said a report by the National Academy of Sciences. "Dispersant application thus represents a conscious decision to increase the hydrocarbon load (resulting from a spill) on one component of the ecosystem (e.g., the water column) while reducing the load on another (e.g., coastal wetland)."

Now BP, with the approval of the Coast Guard, is trying to magnify that effect by applying dispersants underwater. They said that method seemed promising.

Once the oil spill hits shore, new complications will arise. The Louisiana wetlands could act as sponges, soaking up the oil and damaging the plant life there.

Many environmentalists fear damage to the wetlands, which also help protect New Orleans from hurricanes.

The Alaskan shore where the Valdez spill took place was rocky, and cleanup crews hosed down the rocks, killing organisms that lived there and driving some of the oil into soils out of sight. Some critics said leaving the rocks alone might have been better.

The Coast Guard's Web site says: "Natural recovery is often misunderstood; in sensitive environments active cleanup activity may cause more harm than allowing the oil to slowly degrade naturally, as disturbance by activity can drive oil below the surface causing significant damage."

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