Is Better Technology the Answer to Oil Spills?
Following last week’s explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig off the Louisiana coast, underwater robots have been deployed to try to shut off the leaking valve and a response team is working to collect oil from the water’s surface. Response crews are also preparing for what now seems to be inevitable contact of the oil spill with the delicate coastal wetlands and the possibility of a 2-3 month operation if relief drills are required to stop the leak.
Estimates from this past weekend were that approximately 1,000 barrels (or 42,000 gallons) of oil per day are leaking from the source near the seabed.
“This is a manageable amount,” BP spokesman Robert Wine told me Monday in a phone interview: “You can think of it in terms of a couple of oil trucks delivering to a petrol station; it’s not like a huge oil tanker.”
“There is hope that the oil spill can be kept away from the coast, but preparations are being made for that case,” Wine said. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s 3-day forecast for winds and tides offers a favorable outlook, he said.
But, the latest news reports from today have indicated that the oil spill is headed toward the coast.
BP has launched a strong response to the oil spill, and I asked Wine if there are ample resources in the Gulf of Mexico to manage the response in case more is needed. He said that there are — because it’s the most well-sourced oil production region in the world aside from the Middle East.
As for oil on the water’s surface, the Marine Spill Response Corporation, one of the global-scale consortia that assists in oil spill response, had retrieved 1,052 barrels of oily water over the weekend, according to a report by the Associated Press.
Wine explained that the oil is separated by skimmer boats and sent to a refinery as waste oil. The water goes through thorough testing and is put back in the ocean.
“Everything is highly regulated,” he said.
Paul Horsman, an International Climate Campaigner with Greenpeace International, said that the Gulf of Mexico tends to be a hot spot for oil spills from vessels probably because of the amount of traffic. For that reason, it’s also well-equipped to deal with spills, he agreed. “Fortunately, offshore rig accidents aren’t that common,” he added. The biggest one — and the second biggest oil spill on record — is the Ixtoc I oil well accident which released 140 mil gallons (ca. 3 million barrels) into the Gulf of Mexico in 1979 before the well was capped more than 9 months later.
Having heard of a start-up innovative environmental disaster response company last summer while visiting Vancouver, Canada, I contacted the CEO to ask whether the company’s patented AEROS oil-spill response technology would handle the current spill in the Gulf of Mexico more effectively.
“It’s the only solution for that disaster,” President and CEO Myron Sullivan II said, “but it’s not built yet.”
Sullivan, who has an engineering degree, got the idea for the technology after the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill. The system involves GPS-guided vehicles that are parachuted into the affected sea area and encircle the oil spill, rapidly collecting the oil and separating the oil for recycling.
Sullivan said the system has been tested and his company, Global Response Group (GRG), will carry out trials in Canada in the near future.
China has expressed interest in GRG’s AEROS system, which features a range of GPS-deployable response technologies for such disasters as mega-fires and oil spills. The Chinese government sponsored an engineering competition for an oil spill response system in 2009-10, which GRG won, Sullivan said. GRG has secured a small contract and is in negotiations for an $800 million deal to build the first AEROS base in Tianjin in Northeastern China on the Bohai Gulf.
I didn’t have time before posting this article to consult an independent environmental engineering source to evaluate the technology or to find out more about GRG’s AEROS contracts in China, but will follow up on both of these in a future article.
I did, however, ask Greenpeace’s Horsman whether advanced innovative technologies generically speaking would make a significant difference in oil spill response. He was skeptical.
“This occurs to me every time I get quoted. I get emails from all kinds of people who claim to have the cutting edge technology on cleaning up oil spills.”
“It’s always a glorified brush and shovel and vacuum cleaner operation,” he continued. The necessary tools include booms, which are deployed from vessels and look like large sausages. They float on the surface and have a cable beneath to corral the oil. Then, there is a whole range of different skimmers.
“Thirty or forty years of oil spills — if they’ve taught us anything — it’s that you can’t clean it up once it’s gone into the environment.” Horsman said you can try to mitigate the damage, but “fundamentally you’re relying on nature to undertake the breakdown process itself.”
What’s more, some cleaning technologies can actually create more problems. He said many lessons on what not to do were taken from the Exxon Valdez spill.
“You can go to beaches in Prince William Sound and find Exxon Valdez oil buried in the beaches. That’s also a result of some of the aggressive technologies tried. Exxon was desperate to try to remove visible signs of oil on the beaches.”
The best response to a spill, according to Horsman, is to help nature recover through removal of oil and protection of sensitive areas. But, removal is usually not so successful. Even in the best circumstances only 15-20 percent of the oil on the water’s surface is recovered. Environmental management requires making judgments about what to focus on, such as protecting bird colonies or preventing oil from getting onto a wetland, which is incredibly difficult to clean.
Horsman emphasizes that accidents are inevitable especially when operating at the frontier and the oil industry “should be acknowledging that as climate change starts to bite, we should be shifting our resources to renewables and not desperately trying to search for oil reserves in ever more difficult areas like deep water.”
Photo by mark i geo
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