Friday, May 28, 2010


"I will not rest — or be satisfied — until the leak is stopped at the source, the oil on the Gulf is contained and cleaned up, and the people of this region are able to go back to their lives and livelihoods."
-President Obama, days before going on vacation

Now that British Petroleum appears to have stopped the leak in their oil well which was pumping out an estimated 90,000 barrels of oil a day or more, the focus has turned to how to deal with the oil already on the surface. Over 50,000 square miles - an area larger than the country of Greece and about the size of New York state - is believed to be floating with oil, and that area is spreading closer to the mainland every day. In some places, it has already reached the shore.

So what to do? President Obama's ingenious plan "plug the hole" muttered while he went on vacation, seems to have been accomplished, but now what? Well BP was largely to blame for what happened, and they're working hard to try to address the problem. Yet there are others working on the problem, too, putting their minds to finding a solution.

British Petroleum has three basic industry standard solutions on the table they are considering:
  • Burn off what they can
  • Add chemical solvents to the oil so it breaks down faster
  • Skimming the oil off
Of these, the skimming is probably the most attractive because it recovers at least some of the oil. Doubtless all three will be used. However, there are other people coming up with solutions too. The most famous is Kevin Costner's centrifuges which spin out the water and retain the oil, processing 200 gallons a minute. With the vast size of the oil, that's a pretty tiny amount, but he has 30 built and more on the way. BP is presently testing his machine, which seems to be a good way of stopping the oil from reaching key areas. Costner started work on this machine after the Exxon Valdez disaster, spending over $24,000,000 of his own money.

Other solutions include a simple plan to scatter hay on the top of the oil spill then collecting the mess with aquatic harvesters. The theory behind this is simple: oil will tend to stick to whatever it touches, and the hay floats. This will allow the hay to collect the oil, then be picked up. It wouldn't get all of the oil, but it would be a fairly cheap way of getting quite a bit of it. Here's the You Tube video demonstrating the idea:

The real problems I see is that he puts a lot of hay on that oil, an amount that would be difficult to provide even from the entire nation's fields; and that the collection devices are made to get hay, not gummed up oily hay, so they would likely jam and break down in short order without modification. Still its a cheap idea, and its worth a shot. So far BP has not contacted CW Roberts Contracting or Otis Goodson who came up with it.

San Francisco based A Matter of Trust collects hair, fur, and feathers donated from around the world, and is willing to assemble booms of nylon packed with this material to absorb some of the oil and possibly stop it before it spreads beyond the booms. BP was in contact with the organization but has decided against the idea, stating that they have enough booms of their own, but A Matter of Trust is stockpiling them in case the government needs some.

In Italy a company called Fluidotecnica Sanseverino produces an oil- separation device they call Oilsep CC Ecology. This is a non-chemical process that isolates oil from water and they have contacted BP as well. So far BP has not responded, for reasons of their own (possibly price).

Other solutions include an organic compound of hair and mushrooms to sop up the oil, peat moss (which is incredibly absorbant), and naturally-occuring microbes that are found in deep sea trenches which eat oil and produce oxygen. One thing is for certain, this will eventually be cleaned up and the area will return to normal.

This is not, by the way, the worst oil spill in history. In 1979 a Mexican oil rig lost pressure to the mud being used to replace the oil drilled out, had a blowout, burst into flame, and collapsed. Red Adair's team (the man who founded Haliburton) finally got the well shut down ten months later, when over 3 million barrels of oil had been spewed out of the well. You can still, according to some reports, find oil on the beaches of the gulf of Mexico from that disaster.

In comparison to that disaster, the BP one is significantly less troubling. What frustrates me more is that they had already seen this happen and had still nothing in place to deal with it.


eric said...

I think they 'hay' solution must depend on what type of hay you are using as well... one of the tried and true ways to clear up murky water in a pond is to dump a few bales of hay on it and spread it around the surface area and let it soak for a few days... until it sinks (the hay collectes tiny particles floating around in the water and then puts a sedimentary coat on the muddy pond bottom which helps prevent it from getting stirred up)! That's just standard bermuda grass hay, and I don't think they want it soaking up a bunch of oil and then sinking to the bottom of the ocean!

eric said...

And there always the fact that Willie Nelson recently cut his hair... I bet they could troll around with his pigtails hanging off the side of a boat and probably soak up 90% of the oil... but all the fish would get incredibly hungry and start laughing at inappropriate things.