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Despite previous spills, oil cleanup research falls short

Never has such an armada of people and equipment descended upon a U.S. oil spill.

The command center in charge of the operation notes the effort now includes more than 22,000 people, 2.5 million feet of boom to contain and absorb the oil, which is still spewing from the well, 1,150 vessels and more than 785,000 gallons of chemical dispersant, an unprecedented amount, to break up oil slicks that cover the combined size of Delaware and Rhode Island.

But the basic equipment and tactics being used: boom, dispersants, burns and use of skimmer boats to pick up the oil haven't changed much in the two decades since the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska ratcheted up calls in Congress for greater defenses against the ravages of oil spills, spill experts and environmentalists say.

That lack of attention, research and investment by government and industry may seriously handicap efforts to clean up a spill that now threatens Gulf of Mexico shores and waters from Louisiana to Florida given that, in most spills, far less than half of the spilled oil is ever recovered.

"We failed at preventing the spill. Now, we're failing in the response simply because we'd never gotten ready," says Richard Charter, oil spill expert for conservation group Defenders of Wildlife. "Nobody has invested in these technologies."

Federal funding for oil spill research was cut in half between 1993 and 2008, falling to just $7.7 million in fiscal year 2008, data from the Congressional Research Service show. Federal legislation introduced last year to bolster oil spill research has yet to pass. And oil companies have invested "little to no" money on spill response technologies, concentrating instead on oil exploration and spill prevention, says Robert Peterson, a consultant to the oil and gas industry at Charles River Associates.

Last year, Douglas Helton of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration testified at a congressional hearing that oil spill research in the private and public sectors had declined, in part, because larger spills had become less frequent.

But Helton also said research goals envisioned after the Exxon Valdez spill had not been achieved.

"We're in the dark ages in terms of the technology to prevent a disaster ... and ways to clean it up," says Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., who co-sponsored 2009 legislation to coordinate federal research of oil spills and to provide grants to researchers to improve technologies.

"We need science and research to tell us how to do it better," Woolsey says.

British energy giant BP, which owns the well and has said it'll pay for the cleanup, doesn't "specifically research" oil spill response technologies itself, says spokesman Robert Wine. Instead, it supports industry resources, including organizations set up to respond to oil spills, such as Virginia-based Marine Spill Response.

Marine Spill, funded by a non-profit that's funded by oil, shipping and other companies, is the largest oil spill response organization nationwide, says spokeswoman Judith Roos.

The spill responders operate like fire departments, she says, stationing equipment in areas where oil spills are likely and rushing to scenes as needed.

But while Marine Spill stations oil spill equipment at 78 locations and has an annual budget of about $80 million, it has no budget for research, Roos says. Most of its equipment was bought more than 10 years ago, although its fleet includes some newer, 47-foot fast-response vessels, Roos says.

While Marine Spill is a non-profit, the nation has dozens of oil spill response organizations that are private companies. Some critics say those companies, too, haven't invested enough in new technologies because they get paid by how long it takes them to clean up a spill and for the materials used.

Spending money researching new technologies that could make spill response more efficient "doesn't serve the bottom line, and (oil spill response companies) haven't been pushed to do it," says Connie Mixon, CEO of MyCelx Technologies, based in Gainesville, Ga.

MyCelx has 17 employees and distributors in 10 countries for marine products, including absorbent mats, that Mixon says pick up far more oil and far less seawater than booms and mats now used for oil spill response.

MyCelx has 500 customers, including oil and gas companies, refineries and shipping companies, Mixon says. They use MyCelx products to remove hydrocarbons from water. The products have also been used in large oil spill response efforts in Canada, Europe and Australia, Mixon says.

"But we haven't been able to break into the U.S. oil spill business," Mixon says. The U.S. business "hasn't kept up with new technology."

'Hundreds of ideas'

Oil spill response executives and experts dispute such charges. In the wake of a spill, all kinds of companies come forward with technologies promising vast improvements in the ability to pick up oil, says Alan Allen of Spiltec, a Seattle-based oil spill consulting firm. "You get hundreds of ideas," he says, many of which haven't been fully tested.

Responders also reject the notion that the industry resists new technologies because it'll hurt revenue if spills are cleaned up faster.

"There are people, I'm sure, that have attitudes like that. But it is a minimal number," says David Usher, chairman of the Detroit-based Marine Pollution Control, an oil spill cleanup company. He says he's working on a manned submarine that could retrieve oil masses from the ocean floor at greater depths than can now be reached.

Oil spill experts also say that while much of the equipment being used in the Gulf of Mexico spill is traditional, improvements have been made.

New skimmers that pick up oil are more efficient in getting more oil and less water than older skimmers, says consultant Allen. New ways of using chemical dispersants, which break up the oil so that it degrades faster, have resulted in the need for lower doses of dispersants. Fire-resistant booms, not widely available more than a decade ago, increase the ability to burn off oil on the surface.

Newer boom is also more effective in corralling spills, says Robin Rorick of the American Petroleum Institute. API doesn't have a budget for oil spill response research, but it puts on a spill response conference, he says.

Oil spill research is also done at Ohmsett, the National Oil Spill Response Research & Renewable Energy Test Facility in New Jersey. It's supported by the $1 billion Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, which is largely funded by the oil industry.

"There has been investment by industry," Rorick says. Once the spill is done, the industry will go back and see if there are gaps, he says. If so, "We're committed to filling those gaps," Rorick says.

A larger leak

The well that's spewing oil into the Gulf sits 5,000 feet below the sea's surface. No one knows how much oil has spilled, although efforts last week reduced the flow, BP says. For much of the past month, BP estimated that the well was spilling 210,000 gallons of oil a day into the water. On Thursday, BP acknowledged the leak was larger.

Whatever the ultimate size, the spill is big, and cleaning up one that size emerging from such deep water has never been attempted, Charter says. He says the cleanup is likely to be more complicated than if the spill occurred in shallower water.

That's because some of the oil may be spread by currents deep below the surface. The oil can't be skimmed off if it's too far down, and the oil can move farther with currents without being subjected to the degrading effects of sun and wind, Charter says.

BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles said Wednesday that the company's efforts to clean up the oil appear to be making "a substantial difference." More than 11 million gallons of oily water have been recovered from the spill. On Sunday, Coast Guard officials asked BP to double up on work crews to clean up the spill faster.

While it's not clear how much oil that equates to, Suttles said skimmers, on a calm day on Tuesday, got half oil and half water. Typically, skimmers get oily water that's only 10% oil, he added.

Yet previous efforts to recover spilled oil aren't encouraging. In most spills, 10% to 15% of oil is recovered, a 1999 report by the Committee on Marine Transportation of Heavy Oils said. The best recovery rates are probably about 30%, it said. In 2007, 53,000 gallons of oil spilled into the San Francisco Bay after a container ship collided with a bridge. More than 40% of the product was recovered, U.S. Coast Guard Rear Adm. Peter Neffenger testified at a Senate hearing on Tuesday.

BP has also attempted to stop the flow of oil by trying some things that have never been done in 5,000 feet of water. The newest tactic: it will try to kill the well by pumping a heavy mud compound into the well shaft. BP's earlier efforts to cap the well, including placing a dome over the well, failed.

While the number of large spills has declined, consultant Peterson says oil companies got lured into a false sense of security by relying on what they considered to be fail-safe technologies to prevent spills. In the case of the current spill, the primary fail-safe technology was a blowout preventer, which is designed to shut down a well if operators lose control of it. In this spill, the blowout preventer failed, and robots couldn't get it to work, either.

Now that the U.S. has experienced a massive deepwater oil spill, Peterson expects oil companies to step up research to guard against other worst-case scenarios.

"You'll see a significant increase in funding around dealing with spills and intervening in deepwater blowouts," Peterson says.

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