Oil spill cleanup technology lags dangerously behind

BP and other giant oil corporations have invested billions of dollars to develop means of drilling deeper and farther out to sea, yet they have invested relatively no money in developing effective deep-sea oil cleanup and response methods. Every year, the oil companies continue to push the envelope on offshore drilling in deep, remote regions of the ocean. Yet a devastating problem without a good solution will be created should anything go wrong with these risky operations, as BP’s volcano of oil in the Gulf of Mexico so clearly demonstrates.

Even after the 1979 Mexican oil spill in the Gulf, which spewed 3 million barrels of crude for 297 days, neither the oil companies nor the federal government aggressively pursued better spill response technologies. In fact, 10 years after Mexico’s Ixtoc spill, the Exxon Valdez spilled 250,000 barrels of oil in Alaska’s Prince William Sound, and cleanup crews used oil boom, mechanical skimmers, and oil dispersants – the same tools that BP and the government are using today to clean up after the Deepwater Horizon spill.

BP was required to file a spill-response plan to the Minerals Management Service (MMS) before it began drilling at the Macondo site below the Deepwater Horizon rig, but the plan doesn’t mention how BP would stop a deep-water blowout. It only offers wildly optimistic projections about the maximum spill size and offers bland assurances that the spill will be cleaned up quickly and effectively.

To date, only a very small fraction of BP’s oil spill has been recovered. The rest is washing up on marshes and beaches, floating suspended under the water in giant plumes, or being burned on the surface. Because the reality of the Deepwater Horizon spill bears no resemblance to the spill outlined in BP’soil spill response plans, it’s reasonable to conclude that many other fictitious spill plans exist for deepwater drilling operations in the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere. The technology to deal with deepwater gushers simply doesn’t exist.

Tim Robertson, general manager of Nuka Research & Planning, a specialist in oil spill response, told the Canadian Broadcasting Company that “The technology rapidly advanced for drilling because there was money to be made. There was nothing similar that applies to oil spill recovery.”

In just the last 3 years, BP, Shell, ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, and Chevron spent $34 billion on new oil and gas exploration. But the same companies invested a “paltry” amount for spill response planning and development in comparison, said Representative Edward Markey, who introduced a bill that would allocate $50 million per year from oil royalties to develop response technology.

U.S. Representative Brian Baird (D-WA) told the CBC that until the BP disaster, all of the political pressure has been to drill for more oil.

“Our priorities have been about how to extract more oil in greater volumes and for greater profits, and there haven’t been corresponding priorities on how to do so safely and how to prepare if there is an accident,” Baird said.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement (formerly known as the Minerals Management Service) collects $13 billion a year in oil drilling royalties but spends only between $6 million and $7 million a year on oil spill research. Likewise, the U.S. Coast Guard’s annual oil spill research budget has dropped from $5.6 million in 1993 to about $500,000 for each of the past four years.