Six lessons from the BP oil spill
What the tragedy of the BP oil spill has taught us about regulations, technology, and how our energy diet must change.
(Page 6 of 10)
The main technologies used in offshore cleanup haven't advanced much since the Exxon Valdez accident 20 years ago, largely because of the lack of research and the difficulty of testing in "live" conditions. The main weapons, then and now, include oil-skimming boats, miles of oil-absorbing booms, and controlled burns. Along the shore, worried Gulf Coast residents are designing and deploying booms of their own to protect harbors, or putting vacuum trucks meant for cleaning up land-based oil spills onto seagoing barges.Skip to next paragraph
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In another experiment, a Taiwanese company has retrofitted a supertanker with skimming equipment that it says is capable of vacuuming up to 21 million gallons of oily water a day. By comparison, the entire emergency response from the time of the accident, April 20, to July 1 had collected only around 28 million gallons. Though the ship, now in the Gulf, is untested, BP officials are giving it a try. Experts say similar supertankers were used to suck up much of the contaminated water after a massive spill off Saudi Arabia in the early 1990s.
Government and BP officials are also testing 32 centrifuges that can separate oil from seawater, devices being championed by actor Kevin Costner. Some experts, such as Norman Guinasso, director of the geochemical and environmental research group at Texas A&M University in College Station, believe such machines hold promise. He can envision a fleet of 100 or so boats equipped with the devices that could be quickly dispatched to the site of a major spill. "That's what I would like to see," says Mr. Guinasso.
Onshore, authorities are experimenting with a microbial sand scrubber that emulsifies tar balls and injects oil-eating bugs into the sand to consume the hydrocarbons. The device, which uses microbes from the Gulf of Mexico, was designed to pull oil from the tar sands of Canada.
Still, more than technologies will be needed to prevent future disasters. More important may be a change in corporate attitudes. If the leadership of a company isn't dedicated to safety, says Martha Bidez, an engineering professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, all the gee-whiz devices in the world won't matter.
She cites the mining company Rio Tinto Alcan and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (after the Columbia and Challenger disasters) as two large organizations that have "very impressive" programs to prevent accidents.
5 Tap the power of the people
The moment Gulfport, Miss., resident Megan Jordan feared has arrived. The viscous onslaught of crude is no longer an abstract horror belonging to Louisiana, Alabama, and Florida. The first globules of oil have slipped through the Mississippi Sound and washed ashore in nearby Ocean Springs. For Ms. Jordan and her neighbors, this isn't just any beach – it's the keeper of memories, the provenance of dreams. The destruction is hard to bear.