* Communities bracing for oil spills rely on vinyl booms
* Spill response technology frozen since Valdez?
* Government bemoans lack of private sector investment
By Ayesha Rascoe
WASHINGTON, June 10 When the ominous black
plume began gushing from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig last
year, an army of workers was dispatched to protect the U.S.
Gulf Coast using the latest technology -- vinyl-covered booms
and dispersant sprays.
And if another major spill occurs offshore the United
States anytime soon, this is the most protection a community
can expect should oil begin leaking from a ruptured well near
Oil companies since the BP (BP.L) accident have pledged
more than $1 billion to develop systems to cap a leaking
underwater well, and the government has imposed a raft of rules
to prevent another major blowout.
But as industry lobbies heavily to get offshore drilling
going again, little progress is being made on the cleanup part
of the spill process, to the consternation of the government
and environmental groups.
"You can't make up for decades of neglect in a year," said
Jackie Savitz of Oceana, an ocean conservation and
Savitz said it could take more than two weeks to install a
containment system after a deepwater blowout. That could mean
hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil would be spewed into
With hurricane season under way, the stakes are even higher
as strong winds and choppy seas severely compromise
conventional oil spill response technology.
WORSE THAN RAKES
Malcolm Spaulding, an ocean engineering professor at the
University of Rhode Island, likened the current state of oil
spill response technology to trying to rake up all the leaves
in New York's Central Park.
"The systems we have really aren't as effective as rakes,"
said Spaulding, who models the impact of oil spills. "So it's a
technological problem, and we're not likely to see enormous
Booms, which act as a floating barrier to keep oil off
shorelines, are made from vinyl, foam or polypropylene, a
common plastic that repels water and attracts oil.
Along with skimmers, machines that collect oil from water,
and chemical dispersants, these decades-old technologies are
still the main defense for keeping oil off coastlines.
That is bad news for the coastal communities, such as those
along the Gulf, who last year watched helplessly as the crude
shut down fisheries, sullied beaches and decimated tourism,
causing billions of dollars in damages.
Though the damage from the Gulf spill did not reach the
worst-case scenarios some predicted, more than a year later oil
is still washing up on some beaches and the full long-term
impact on fragile ecosystems is unknown.
PREPARING FOR SPILLS
U.S. offshore drilling chief Michael Bromwich, appointed by
President Barack Obama to oversee reform after the BP spill,
criticized industry efforts to improve cleanup techniques
during a tour of the country's oil spill testing facility.
Located in Leonardo, New Jersey, about one hour south of
New York City, it is the only facility that allows the
government and the private sector to conduct full-scale
equipment testing using actual oil.
During his visit, Bromwich watched as a Coast Guard
training class practiced skimming oil that had been sprayed
into the tank's 2.6 million gallons (9.8 million litres) of
salt water. A movable bridge towed a bright orange boom to
contain the oil.
Bromwich took the helm of the skimmer equipment at one
point and tried his hand at sifting oil.
While satisfied with the training, Bromwich bemoaned the
lack of innovation and expressed surprise that only one company
-- ConocoPhillips (COP.N) -- had spent much time at the
facility for training.
"With all the other advances in technology over the last 20
years, the idea that oil spill response technology is frozen
for that long just doesn't make sense to me," Bromwich told
Reuters after watching the training.
Since the law holds companies involved in oil spills
responsible for cleanup, he said the private sector needs to
PRETTY MUCH A JOKE
The industry maintains progress has been made in the
decades since the 1989 Exxon-Valdez spill and the Gulf
After the Exxon Valdez disaster, the oil industry formed
the Marine Spill Response Corporation to help it battle
"The cars we drive today are much different from a Model T,
but they have the same principle, they still have four tires
and an engine," said Judith Roos a spokeswoman for the
"There have been improvements, but we are still using the
same processes and techniques."
During the BP oil spill, the MSRC deployed some 42
skimmers, 65,000 feet (19,800 metres) of boom, as well as
dozens of other vessels and equipment.
The corporation, which buys equipment and is not involved
in research and development, said it trains for oil spills in
open waters to prepare for conditions its staff will face
during an accident.
Still, Roos said the public shouldn't expect response
technology to advance as quickly as the latest smart phone.
"There's not a broad market for spill response resources,"
she said. "It's not like industry isn't out looking for how to
improve spill response technology. Industry is looking for
better ways, but it's not market driven."
That's not good enough for environmental groups, who decry
the lack of attention on response technology.
"Once the oil is in the water, it's pretty much all over as
far as containment," said David Pettit, senior attorney for the
Natural Resources Defense Council. "It's pretty much a joke."
(Editing by Russell Blinch and Xavier Briand)