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How the Gulf Oil Cleanup Went Wrong

Refusal of foreign help, long delays, and poor equipment

By James Ottar Grundvig Created: August 11, 2010 Last Updated: August 11, 2010
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News Analysis

DIFFICULTY IN CLEANUP: Oil cleanup workers try to capture globs of oil that were washing ashore from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico on July 1, 2010 in Gulfport, Mississippi. Oil cleanup has been unsuccessful with lack of foreign help, long delays, and poor equipment. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

DIFFICULTY IN CLEANUP: Oil cleanup workers try to capture globs of oil that were washing ashore from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico on July 1, 2010 in Gulfport, Mississippi. Oil cleanup has been unsuccessful with lack of foreign help, long delays, and poor equipment. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

“Making it Right,” has been BP’s $50 million advertising slogan in trying to sell America that all will be well and restored in the Gulf one day, just not this year and probably not next year.

In the spirit of reassurance, the EPA launched a new website www.restorethegulf.gov, as if the virtual brochure will make Americans feel better about the disaster. The EPA site shares much of the same information, word for word in some cases, with BP’s Deepwater Horizon website. So at times, it’s hard to distinguish the foreign oil supermajor from any of the U.S. agencies tasked with overseeing the cleanup of the Gulf.

BP isn’t the only culprit in this saga that allowed the oil spill to spread unchecked for the almost three months between the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon on April 20 and the capping of the well on July 16. There have been other contributors, from a Hollywood actor turned entrepreneur, to the U.S. president and his inexperienced Cabinet, and many of the outmoded agencies that failed to contain the tens of millions of barrels of oil from reaching all corners of the Gulf coast.

The Numbers Don’t Lie

The U.S. Coast Guard Joint Information Center confirmed one eye-opening statistic on the eve of tropical storm Bonnie barreling into the Gulf. A U.S. Coast Guard media officer said, “There are 750 domestic oil skimming vessels and zero foreign vessels in the Gulf. The last foreign vessel with oil skimmer capability was the ‘Whale’ used during oil recovery trials.”

That’s 750-0.

A rout so large that most people would boast about it, except that it masks an uncomfortable truth: the response by the multi-agency task force has been over-manned, entangled in red tape, and under supported with the right tools to contain the spill, let alone clean it up.

In an e-mail on July 22, BP’s Unified Command Center in Houston broke down the number; “522 inshore oil skimmers, 155 near shore skimmers, and 73 offshore oil skimmers.”

No wonder dozens of foreign governments, from Norway and Holland to Japan and Mexico, have been amazed, frustrated, and perplexed about the U.S. government micro-managing the wrong aspects of the catastrophe.

Why was BP still conducting sea trials this deep into the crisis?

The offer to BP and U.S. Coast Guard by the Netherlands of the oil-skimming ship Mellina—the third offer from that nation of high-tech assistance—was eventually turned down, after the Dutch waited for over a month for an answer.

To not have a timely review of foreign technology has been standard operating procedure by BP. It seems America is saying to the world, “If you’re a foreigner, stand at the back of the line and wait.”

What mainstream press hasn’t reported regarding the robust number of “750 oil skimming vessels” is that the American-made, smaller weir skimmers are inferior—they clog easily when oil viscosity thickens into a “chocolate mousse.” And U.S. Coast Guard skimming ships have encountered the thicker brown slicks of oil away from the source.

Other foreign skimmers, such as the Dutch Koseq rigid sweeping arms were stripped off a large foreign vessel, dumbed-down by BP engineers, fitted onto second-rate American craft with one-twentieth of the oil skimming capacity of the Dutch ship, and operated by American workers unfamiliar with the unit’s systems.

Hollywood on the Gulf

On July 8, in typical Hollywood packaging, actor Kevin Costner announced that through the diligent work of his company Ocean Therapy Solutions (OTS), in concert with BP engineers, he had fulfilled “his vision” of cleaning up the environment. With BP and the U.S. Coast Guard at his side, Mr. Costner unveiled the ‘T-Rex Skimmer.’

The OTS press release read, “A revolutionary ‘Trans Rec 150 skimmer’ (also known as the T-Rex skimmer) modified by Chouest and OTS specifically for use on the ‘Ella G’ [supply vessel] collects 800 gallons of oily water a minute with unprecedented efficiency.”

The press release, however, omitted a few salient facts. First, the Transrec 150 skimmer was designed and manufactured by the Norwegian offshore specialty firm Frank Mohn A/S (Framo). BP purchased the Framo units privately through third party owners—Shell Oil & the European Marine Safety Agency (EMSA). BP declined to comment on the sale.

Back in May, Framo offered to send BP over several Transrec 150s to help clean up the oil spill. The offer was turned down.

In speaking with Framo’s Executive Vice President Bendt Nilsen in Houston, he said, “Framo requested BP that the Transrec 150 should not be connected to the OTS separator, due to the huge gap and ‘magnitude’ difference in capacity between the two machines.”

“The TR150 is capable of 400 tons per hour while the Costner separator can handle up to 25 tons per hour. Secondly, the TR150, in the hands of a good operator, will pick up (emulsified) oil only, no water—better than 95 percent. A separator is therefore not needed. The emulsified oil can be separated later, as in a second stage process,” he said.

As BP and the U.S. government have demonstrated, no foreign help, whether vessels or workers, are wanted in the Gulf.

Mr. Nilsen confirmed in an e-mail: “Three smaller units, decommissioned from non-U.S. response depots, have been sold to the Gulf operation and are currently in the process of being installed onboard U.S. flag vessels.” He added, “U.S. response operators already have several Framo TransRec units. … Some were deployed to the Gulf in May.”

After the July 8 press release, The Epoch Times contacted John Houghtaling, CEO of OTS, about an interview, but there was no response to the request. When asked via e-mail about Mr. Costner neglecting to mention Framo regarding the T-Rex skimmer, Mr. Houghtaling replied via e-mail:

“The Trans Rec 150 is an impressive machine and the point of our press conference was to show off the Trans Rec as it is used in conjunction with our centrifuge machines for a unique and innovative solution. Centrifuge technology has been around for years—the way we use the technology is new, different, and patented.”

Maybe. But more than two months of oil skimming time was wasted before the right equipment reached the Gulf of Mexico to combat the massive spill.

Mr. Costner’s publicity agent, Arnold Robinson, couldn’t be reached for comment.

To be fair, Mr. Costner has invested his own money and time, 17 years of it, to bring OTS to fruition so that it would be available to help in the Gulf Oil Spill cleanup. On June 9 he testified before the Energy and Environment Subcommittee of the House Science and Technology Committee.

In short, he said that there are no oil skimmers that could do the job of cleanup. If he was referring to American skimmers, that would be an accurate statement, but it's not accurate if he is referring to skimmers available in Norway, Holland, or Japan.

Politics and the Jones Act

The question remains: Why was OTS allowed by BP and the U.S. government to become the centerpiece of the oil skimming operations months after the blowout? It is a mystery that only an insider or whistleblower could shed light on.

Mr. Nilsen and other foreign oil industry executives have noted that the Jones Act, which restricts the use of foreign vessels for domestic purposes, blocked foreign aid to the cleanup.

“The Jones Act,” Mr. Nilsen wrote, “was detrimental to the assistance from overseas countries, even if the verdict states clearly that oil skimming operation is not subject to the Jones Act. Norway would have been able to bring over a fleet of their state-of-the-art oil recovery vessels in no time—as compared to the delays introduced by the political negotiations.”

If politics weren’t part of the Gulf oil spill equation, then the independent investigation into the reasons behind the blowout and failures of the response wouldn’t wait until January 2011 to be delivered to President Obama—or a couple of months after the volatile midterm elections.

In the case of the oil spill, politics delayed and fragmented the response to the crisis. Together with BP, the actions of the administration ensured that the cleanup would be slow and ineffective.

As a young man, James Ottar Grundvig worked on Norway’s offshore oil platforms. Today he is a writer living in New York City.




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