Two years ago, an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil platform led to the spilling of almost five million barrels of oil in just a handful of months. I wrote the following post in June of that year, two months after the spill began. Even now, we still don’t really know how much of an effect the oil spilled and the subsequent cleanup efforts will have on the Gulf ecosystem. At least, as I conclude in this post, I hope we have learned our lesson.
Oil supplies the United States with approximately 40% of its energy needs. Billions upon billions of gallons are pumped out of our wells, brought in from other countries, and shipped around to refineries all over the states. 1.3 million gallons of petroleum are spilled into U.S. waters from vessels and pipelines in a typical year. Yes, it would be great if we never spilled a drop of oil. No matter how hard we may try, though, the fact is that nobody is perfect, and oil spills are an inevitable consequence of our widespread use of oil. The question is, once the oil is out there, how do we clean it up?
Nowehere is this issue more glaring than in the Gulf of Mexico right now, where 35,000 to 60,000 barrels of oil are spewing out of the remains of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig every day. The spill has enraged an entire nation. But perhaps my grandfather put it best, when I asked him what he thought about how BP and the US is responding to the spill.
“They’re friggin’ idiots.”
My grandfather, Ralph Bianchi, knows a thing or two about oil spills. He spent thirty years in the oil spill cleanup business. His company, JBF Scientific (now a part of Slickbar), developed new technologies for cleaning up spills, including a skimming method called the Dynamic Inclined Plane (DIP). In 1970, they sold their first skimmer to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The next year, the U.S. Navy purchased forty $250,000 DIP skimmers and stationed them at major naval installations throughout the world. When word of how well his designs worked for the government, private oil companies started buying DIP skimmers, too.
In 1987, my grandfather’s company, JBF Scientific, received a call from the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company. The company, based in Alaska, was formed in 1970 and charged with the duty of designing, constructing, operating and maintaining the pipeline which transports oil from the fields in Alaska. It is owned by the major oil companies that operate the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, including a couple you may have heard of: BP and Exxon Mobil.
Part of Alyeska’s job is to clean up any spills which occur in the process of the movement of oil to, from and through the pipeline. What they wanted from my grandfather was a DIP skimmer larger than he’d ever constructed – a boat over 120 feet long. JBF drew up plans for a massive DIP skimmer capable of removing 2,500 barrels of oil per hour. But when my grandfather told them how much it would cost – an estimated $4 to $5 million at the time – Alyeska instead decided to try another company’s cheaper model, which turned out to be close to useless in the kelp-filled waters of the Northwest.
Of course, everyone knows what happened next. In 1989, the Exxon Valdez ran aground on Prince William Sound’s Bligh Reef and spilled an estimated 250,000 barrels of crude oil, creating one of the worst environmental disasters in history. The spill itself was bad enough, but Alyeska, Exxon and the country were entirely unprepared to deal with a cleanup of that nature. Despite months of cleanup efforts, less than 10% of the spilled oil was recovered, and 20 years later, the ecosystems in the area had still yet to recover.
After the spill, Alyeska bought my grandfather’s skimmer. The boat, called the Valdez Star, still operates in that area today. If another spill the size of the Exxon Valdez occurred now, picking up that volume of oil would only be a few days’ work for the Valdez Star and two aluminum oil recovery boats the company also bought. Only a few days work.
If only the cooperative in Alaska had been willing to spend a little more on their cleanup equipment! Other areas, however, were and are much better about their cleanup planning. One of the first privately owned groups to embrace the DIP skimmers was the oil cooperative in Puget Sound. Puget Sound and the Northwest Straits are among the busiest shipping lanes in the world, with billions of gallons of oil moving across the waters of Puget Sound every year. The Sound may have many environmental issues, including stormwater runoff and pollution, but it kicks butt at cleaning up oil spills.
Despite the fact that oil spills occur there fairly frequently, you don’t hear about them much. That’s because in Puget Sound, they have what my grandfather calls a “firehouse mentality.” The cooperative bought the first privately owned DIP skimmer, The North Sounder, from JBF in the late 1980s. After the Exxon spill, they purchased three more similar skimmers, and a 600 ton skimmer like the Valdez Star called The Shearwater. These skimmers are among a fleet of equipment and trained personnel ready at a moment’s notice to deal with any spill. They run drills to practice different methods of cleanup. They know the currents and wind data and predict where and when the oil will hit. They’ve identified sensitive shore areas like shell fish beds, bird feeding and nesting ground and yachting harbors, and have stationed containment and deflecting booms, storage barges, and skimmers at those areas. And all of it is funded by the state and the oil companies and other shippers whose oil could be spilled. In Washington, the state Ecology Department has a budget of $16 million, while companies spend roughly $41 million a year there preparing for spills.
In Puget Sound, when a spill happens, they jump into action. Just like firefighters responding to an alarm, trained teams of workers immediately assess the situation and combat the spreading problem. They contain the oil if they can, and if they can’t, they protect the areas that are most vulnerable to oil’s damaging effects. Similar oil cleanup crews are now in place in a number of harbors around the country.
So I asked my grandfather how many skimmers he sold to companies in the Gulf.
BP now claims that 400 or so skimmers are now working to clean up the oil spilling in the gulf. One of their spokesmen, Mark Proegler, says skimmers are only able to collect about 10-15 percent of the oil. “They essentially scoop up the oil and water mix in the water for later separation,” he explained, “and that mix is about 10 percent oil and 90 percent water.”
But that’s because they aren’t using DIP skimmers, or other, better skimming technologies that have been developed over the past few decades. The resultant oil percentage of the fluids that are picked up by these skimmers is more than five times higher. When deciding how well prepared an area is for an oil spill, the government tends to operate on a 20% rule of thumb (33 CFR 155, Appendix B, Section 6) – that is, they assume that any skimmer will operate at only 20% the efficiency that the manufacturer claims. For JBF DIP models, however, they assume 74% to 94% efficiency.
What my grandfather wants to know is why the Valdez Star and the Shearwater, as well as the other large, high-quality skimmers, aren’t in the Gulf right now. Better boats are out there, which could clean up more oil and faster.
It’s not just that BP and other Gulf companies hadn’t embraced the newer, better cleanup technologies before this disaster occurred. It’s that they aren’t prepared at all for any kind of large spill. That’s what the US government discovered when they performed exercises in the early 2000s to see how companies would respond to a major spill. The After Action report of the 2004 Spill of National Significance (SONS) exercise concluded that, in the Gulf of Mexico:
Oil spill response personnel did not appear to have even a basic knowledge of the equipment required to support salvage or spill cleanup operations…. There was a shortage of personnel with experience to fill key positions. Many middle-level spill management staff had never worked a large spill and some had never been involved in an exercise.
What’s even more sobering is that of the oil spills within the Coast Guard’s jurisdiction (i.e., marine and coastal areas), approximately 50% of the incidents, both in number and the volume of oil spilled, occur in the Gulf of Mexico and its shoreline states.
Why doesn’t the Gulf have the “firehouse mentality” of areas like Puget Sound? Why haven’t they identified the most vulnerable areas and stationed cleanup equipment there, provided up to date training for cleanup personnel, and generally prepared for this kind of disaster?
The answer is simple. As my grandpa phrased it, “they’re cheap bastards.”
The lack of foresight and constant corner cutting by BP led to this disaster. But what’s worse is that they continue to botch the containment and cleanup of the billions of gallons of oil that their mistakes have spilled.
“The real issue,” my grandfather explained to me, “is that they don’t care about solving the problem.” By they, he wasn’t just referring to BP. He was referring to all of the oil companies in the Gulf and the government regulators that are supposed to be ensuring that oil drilling and transport occurs safely. “They throw dispersants on the oil. Do you know what dispersants do? They make the oil neutrally buoyant. Dispersed oil winds up in the water column and, therefore, cannot be deflected by floating booms or harvested with oil skimmers. They make the surface look cleaner, but they don’t do a damned thing to actually clean up the oil.”
Essentially, dispersants are soaps. They emulsify oil, breaking up up and allowing it to mix into water. The idea behind dispersants is that by breaking up the oil and putting it in the water column, it will be degraded faster by the microorganisms that naturally degrade oils and keeping the oil from coating the shoreline.
Starting in May, the US has been spraying oil dispersants at the spill like mad, despite concerns raised by many related to potential dispersant impact on wildlife and fisheries, environment, aquatic life, and public health. The EPA further approved injection of these dispersants directly at the the leak site to break up the oil before it reaches the surface. By the end of may, over 600,000 gallons of dispersants have been applied on the surface, with another 55,000 gallons applied underwater. The two main dispersants being used, Corexit EC9500A and EC9527A are neither the least toxic, nor the most effective, among the dispersants approved by the Environmental Protection Agency. In fact, the UK has banned their use entirely. When BP was asked why they aren’t using better dispersants, they said that Corexit was ‘what they had available.’
The bigger question, though, is why are they using dispersants at all. Multiple studies after the Exxon Valdez spill found that dispersants, detergents, and hot water cleaning of shoreline cause substantially more mortality than oil itself. Even before the Exxon spill, scientists knew that “dispersant-oil mixtures are more toxic than the dispersant alone, and many-fold more toxic than the crude oil.” While better and safer detergents are being developed, their long-term toxicity and effectiveness is still completely unknown, making them risky to use in such high quantities as BP is.
The way my grandpa sees it, the so-called cleanup of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill isn’t about being effective or safe, it’s about looking like they’re doing something. The goal is to make it less visible so the public forgets that it’s happening. It’s all about PR.
I think he’s right.
What needs to happen, in the Gulf of Mexico and throughout the United States, is a change of mindset. We’ve already started moving away from oil to other, more responsible and sustainable energy technologies, but that is only a small part of the solution. The truth is, we’re likely never going to have a zero demand for oil. We certainly won’t do it in the next fifty or a hundred years – it’s just not feasible. While we need to continue to research alternatives, we need to deal with how we handle and regulate oil now, too.
Oil companies have been taking advantage of loose regulations for too long. They need to be forced to prepare for the damage their products can cause. You would think that after the disaster in Alaska that we would have learned our lesson – that anywhere where oil is drilled, pumped or transported would have put in place well trained emergency response teams and extensive equipment ready to react to large spills. But apparently, we haven’t learned from our mistakes. This time, I hope that we do.
PS: For amazing coverage of the oil spill in general, check out my blog-buddies over at Deep Sea News and the growing list of fantastic posts/feeds/etc from Southern Fried Science
- Jonathan L. Ramseur (2010). Oil Spills in U.S. Coastal Waters: Background, Governance, and Issues for Congress Congressional Research Service , 7-5700 (RL33705)
- USCG Spill Compendium (2005). Cumulative Data And Graphics For Oil Spills (1973-2004)
- Ralph A. Bianchi, Edward E. Johanson, & James H. Farrell (1973). The Application of Skimmers, Piston Films,and Sorbents for Open Water Spills Offshore Technology Conference
- U.S. Department of Homeland Security, & U.S. Coast Guard (2004). California SONS 2004 After Action Report
- Paine, R., Ruesink, J., Sun, A., Soulanille, E., Wonham, M., Harley, C., Brumbaugh, D., & Secord, D. (1996). TROUBLE ON OILED WATERS: Lessons from the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, 27 (1), 197-235 DOI: 10.1146/annurev.ecolsys.27.1.197
- SWEDMARK, M., GRANMO, A., & KOLLBERG, S. (1973). Effects of oil dispersants and oil emulsions on marine animals Water Research, 7 (11), 1649-1672 DOI: 10.1016/0043-1354(73)90134-6
- CM Tarzwell (1971). Toxicity of oil and oil dispersant mixtures to aquatic life. Water pollution by oil. London, The Institute of Petroleum. P. Hepple (Ed.) , 263-272