BP’s Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill by Art Keller
David Vidrine, one of the two rig supervisors of the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil platform, will probably have a happier holiday season this year than he’d been anticipating. On Dec. 2, 2015, the Justice department dropped manslaughter charges against Vidrine for the 2010 accident on the Deepwater Horizon that caused 11 deaths and the nation’s worst offshore oil spill. Vidrine will instead be allowed to plead to a misdemeanor violation of the Clean Water Act. With the reduction of charges against Vidrine and another supervisor, Robert Kaluza, to misdemeanors, all British Petroleum (BP) employees now seem to have avoided serious criminal liability for the accident.
The same cannot be said for civil liability; cleanup costs for the oil spill have been steadily mounting for five years. Most recently, British Petroleum was hit in October 2015 with a world-record $20.8 billion environmental fine for the massive spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The fine brought the running total of BP’s costs for the accident to $54 billion and counting. By some accounts, BP moved with dispatch to deploy cleanup resources after the spill began, but the astronomical cost of the accident shows that companies and governments that want to avoid experiencing another $54 billion dollar disaster need to invest more in oil spill response before the next big accident happens.
The good news about spill cleanup is that cleanup technology has advanced by leaps and bounds in recent years. Better mechanical means of oil removal/recovery, better communications, better dispersants, and better spill monitoring all mean that when the right resources are in place, a significantly higher percentage of the oil released in a spill can be removed from the environment than was possible in spills of even a decade ago.
Encouraging as the advances in technology are, once an oil spill starts, every delay in getting response resources into place increases cleanup costs on a steep curve. In many cases, energy companies rely on oil spill response specialists to limit the magnitude of a spill’s damage. Yet even those specialist firms find their capabilities sharply circumscribed by the amount of crucial equipment stockpiled ahead of the spill, and how widely their in-house expertise can be stretched. Once those limits are reached, first-line spill responders are at the mercy of their supply chains’ ability to manufacture more key equipment, and supply personnel trained on its use.
Illinois-based oil spill equipment manufacturer Elastec won a 2010 X-Prize for creating a clean-up system that doesn’t just contain oil spills on water, but works with grooved disc system to recover almost 90 percent of a water-borne oil slick. Since winning the prize, Elastec developed the technology into a ship-mounted X 150 launching system. For all that Elastec is justifiably proud of what the X150 can do; Linda Henning of Elastec says oil spill response is frequently hamstrung, not by lack of efficient technology, but by lack of investment in preparedness.
“With the current low price of oil, capital costs are relatively higher and market investment in spill preparedness is way down. When a big spill hits, we move to get our production capacity up to speed as fast as possible, but the X150 is sophisticated machinery and a unit can’t be built in just a few days.”
Henning believes that energy firms need to fundamentally change the way they conceive of oil spill response.
“Nobody wants them, but spills are going to happen. The industry needs to think of spills like we’ve come to think of fire response. We build fire stations and fire engines and put them where they’re likely to be needed so they’re ready when fires break out. Energy companies need to analyze where their greatest points of vulnerability are and get at least some response equipment positioned nearby. Some of the smartest companies we sell to are already doing this, but many more aren’t.”
PowerPlus Disaster Clean Up (DCU) of Anaheim, CA supported dozens of cleanup teams in the Gulf of Mexico during the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon spill. DCU’s founder and owner, Kevin Wang, has nothing but praise for BP during his interaction with the company during the spill.
“They told me do everything you can, do it as fast as you can, and don’t worry about what it costs.”
Despite BP’s post-spill flexibility, DCU had to conquer similar production challenges to those Elastec faced. To meet the demand that exploded literally overnight once the leak started, Wang had to accelerate the production line that builds his flagship oil extraction unit, the Prodigy Bio, to three shifts a day operating at 100% capacity. That was possible only because DCU had already invested time and money developing training materials and techniques for a crash employee education program long before the spill occurred.
“We’ve spent years setting up a training system that lets us take someone off the street and get them rapidly trained with videos, hands-on practice, and color-coded samples as production templates, so they could be integrated literally overnight into the Prodigy production line.”
Wang is not shy in extolling the Prodigy, noting DCU has spent more than 25 years refining it so it can be configured to clean up anything from nuclear contamination, to anthrax, to oil spills. It can be used on a huge variety of surfaces, including living animals and plants, dirt and sand, underwater structures, ships at sea, and homes and businesses.
However, the very versatility of the Prodigy, which can be configured to run at anywhere from room temperature and pressure up to 4,000 lbs psi of pressure, using super-heated water, and near-perfect vacuum extraction, means it has to be handled with care; at max temp and pressure, the machine can easily blow a 2”x4” into pieces. Knowledgeable crews are a necessity so they can work at maximum efficiency while operating the gear at appropriate power levels to avoid damaging the flora and fauna at spill sites.
During the BP oil spill, while half of Wang’s company was rushing to crank-up his production line, the other half was fighting to make sure the units they produced were used correctly when they got to spill sites.
“While part of the company was building Prodigies as fast as possible, another big chunk of the staff, me included, were chained to the our phones, talking to clean-up teams and creating ‘prescriptions’ for each spill site. Every oil spill site is unique. You have to consider wind direction, temperature, remaining daylight, what kind of material is contaminated, what chemistry is needed to extract oil from the material, which tool heads to use, and in what order to carry out cleaning operations.”
One of Wang’s chief laments of the spill-cleanup process is the chronic shortage of experienced cleanup crews.
“Once we create the right prescription, a lot of times we have to get someone out to the cleanup site to train the inexperienced crews how to use the Prodigy. A lot of the cleanup contractors are forced to hire low-skilled workers with little or no cleanup experience, which means in the midst of a crisis, response is delayed because DCU has to train (and