There has been much talk about how to clean up the oil in the Gulf of Mexico. Yet, so far there there seems to have been more talk than action. There is a potential partial solution and I have no idea why it has not been implemented.
Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal wanted to build sand berms to keep the oil away from coastal regions but he has been denied in most instances. Something about waiting for an environmental impact study. Meanwhile, the environment is getting impacted. Relief wells have been started but may not be complete until the end of July. In the meantime, there is a proven technology to more effectively remove the oil from the Gulf of Mexico. It was used 20 years ago but kept a secret. In the last few weeks, many people have become aware of it including all of the principals in this ecodrama; those in industry, military, political. Yet, so far, no one seems to have lifted a finger to make this maxium effort. There has been no reason given why no one seems to want to act. Okay…I do have one idea about why no one has called on the proven technology but its so cynical I refuse to believe it. In any event, the lack of action may be changing…about 5 weeks behind schedule.
The largest oil spill in world history is generally recognized to be that which resulted from the Persian Gulf War in 1990. The Iraqis were concerned about a potential amphibious invasion by the United States Marine Corps. They let loose a strategy of opening the valves at the Sea Island oil terminal so that the oil would foul that water to such an extent that it would limit the American’s ability to conduct amphibious operations. The Americans reacted by bombing the island facility to stop the flow of oil but there were also a couple of damaged oil tankers and a damaged Kuwaiti oil refinery that added to the pollution. In most oil spills, it is almost impossible for anyone to give a concrete number relating to amounts of oil lost, yet the media always demands one. In general, the estimates for the Persian Gulf oil spill run around 11 million barrels. The Exxon Valdez spill was estimated at 11 million gallons. So, this was 42 times bigger. A few weeks ago I reported on the Ixtoc I oil well blowout and it put out something on the order of about half that of the Persian spill.
In 1993, the New York Times reported that a study sponsored by many nations concluded that the spill produced “little long term damage.” It said that half the oil evaporated, about a million barrels was recovered and 2 or 3 million barrels washed up on the shore. But, in 2010, Dr. Jaqueline Michel said that studies indicated that oil remains in the wetland areas of the Persian Gulf and that oil had penetrated deeply into the intertidal sediment. Hence, the belief is that the area will take decades to recover. Here’s the funny thing. While the New York Times was reporting on the study regarding the 1990 Persian Gulf Oil spill, oil was flowing into the Persian Gulf. When Dr. Michel reported on the long term effects of the Gulf War spill, nothing was said about how it was determined the oil found was indeed from the 1990 spill and not perhaps another large spill. Perhaps no one asked the question and the New York Times was silent because no one knew about the very large spill in the Persian Gulf in 1993.
The Unknown Oil Spill: It is very difficult to find answers regarding the spill because the Saudi government kept it quiet and told those working with Saudi Aramco to keep quiet. That means that Royal Dutch Shell kept it under wraps. The Exxon Valdez resulted in 11 million gallons of oil into the Alaska waters. There is no way that anyone could hide that, right? Well, either the Saudis are a bunch of Houdinis or they paid a lot of people to look the other way because this spill was estimated to have dumped some 800 millon gallons of oil into the Persian Gulf. Yet, who knew? Those who did know kept it quiet. Tiger Woods should have hired the Saudis for public relations because they managed to keep their little disaster out of the press. However, part of the reason that no one heard about it was that action was taken.
The Unknown Supertanker Skimmers: Saudi Arabia is the largest owner of supertankers in the world. Apparently, what they did was develop a method in which super tankers act as giant vacuums to draw in millions of gallons of seawater. Oil is separated from the water. The water is put back in the ocean and the oil is recovered for production. In this particular case, apparently about 85% of the oil lost was eventually recovered. Much of the rest probably evaporated or otherwise broke up. From an observer, the results would match with those associated with a relatively minor spill and not the gigantic catastrophe that was reality. To be certain, this was not a quick fix. According to an article from Esquire, the initial skimming operation took about 6 months and the total clean up effort lasted for several more years.
Now, the former CEO of Shell and a former engineer with Saudi Aramco have been try to get media attention regarding the potential clean up method. They also have tried to get the US Government and BP’s attention of anyone else who will listen. Esquire reported late in May that President Obama is aware of the methodology because ABC’s Jake Tapper asked him a question regarding the procedure at a recent press conference. Apparently the response was not comprehensive. BP is aware of the procedure because the article claims that BP is now actually considering the strategy. Esquire also says that a leading oilman from Houston, Matthew Simmons, has been out beating the bushes urging someone to utilize the technology currently available. And, Esquire has made certain that the US Coast Guard is aware of the procedure and supertanker skimming capability because the magazine actually sent a letter to the Coast Guard asking about possible implementation. Communities along the Alabama Coast inquired about the procedure and first contacted Esquire for details; not the government, BP or the Coast Guard. I suppose they figure that if someone else won’t use what is available to protect their coast, the wildlife and many jobs then they will go out and find out how to do it themselves.
Environmental Battleship: This whole idea even goes back before the 1993 Saudi spill. After I first reported a month ago on the history of the IXTOC I blowout in the Gulf of Mexico and how it related to the current Deepwater Horizon incident, I received a press release (followed by a second) from an outfit in South Louisiana. In my mind, clearly they are trying to use this incident to promote their project. But, if one is to believe the release, following the Exxon Valdez accident, the government called for new methods to respond to oil catastrophes. Herman J. Schellstede & Associates, Inc. said in their release that Mr. Schellstede responded with the design of a ship dedicated to the skimming and processing of sea water similar to that of Aramco. I’m not certain if its quite the same because it’s hard to determine if the supertankers process the water on board whereas Mr. Schellstede says that his “Sea Clean” vessel would process 38,000 gallons of water per minute for on-board treatment. I think the supertankers can take on more water but they can’t treat the water on board, which is an advantage for the “Sea Clean.” The release says that in the early 90’s, the South Louisiana company received the proper permits to begin building the ship when suddenly interest waned. There was no more push from the government and the oil companies apparently felt that it was hard to justify spending tens of millions of dollars for a ship that they may never need. After all, there have been thousands of oil wells drilled in the Gulf and there have been very few that have blown out. This boat was not a secret either. There is a new Youtube video of the “Sea Clean” as well as an article in a 1991 edition of Popular Mechanics that touted the potential of Mr. Schellestede’s vessel. Before that, in November 1989, just months after the March 24, 1989 Exxon Valdez accident, the New York Times said in an article that “a huge vessel now on the drawing board could someday serve as what its designers call an environmental battleship, attacking oil spills like the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska.” It’s still on the drawing board.
So, in 1989 the government asked for new methods to react to large offshore oil disasters. An American company in South Louisiana came up with a solution. The birds chirped. A big oil disaster in the Persian Gulf was averted in 1993 by using a similar technology but no one knew about it because of a Public Relations effort of the Saudi Arabians. The Saudis have the largest fleet of supertankers in the world and the US has certainly come to the security of interests of that nation enough times that they could spare a few tankers for awhile. So, the tankers could be made available. The technology is proven and available. We know for certain now that BP knows about it, the US Coast Guard knows about it, the US Government knows about it, the President of the United States knows about it and even Larry King knows about it. Yet, the birds continue to chirp….those who can chirp as others struggle to lift their oil soaked heads.
I’m not sure why it can’t be done but it seems an easy plan would be for BP to handle the plugging of the well. That should be their only focus because its extremely difficult at such bone crushing, frigid depths. The Coast Guard could be in charge of the clean up and containment and use the influence of the state department to help persuade the Saudis to get those supertankers over here. The Energy Department can be talking to the folks in South Louisiana about what it would take to build the vessel proposed. The Justice Department and Congress should stand down for a while. It used to drive me crazy when, during a difficult TV show, people would start yelling at each other over problems while the show was still in progress. That disrupted more of the show. I would always urge that we get through the show and then start pointing fingers afterward. So far, the “action” we’ve seen has been hearings, finger pointing and lawsuits, threats of lawsuits and threats of criminal trials with very little “action” concerning fixing the problem and finding the answers later. No one has considered that this was no one’s fault…that there is an inherent danger at drilling at such water depths. Regardless, we need to get this thing stopped….and it won’t be easy…it took 9 months at IXTOC I and that was only a few hundred feet of water, not over 5000 feet. Lets put 100% of the resources toward plugging the hole then maybe the birds will chirp again. Hopefully theywill chirp because emergency planning will not just be talked about but followed through with this time.