WASHINGTON (Reuters) - 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 its shores.
Oil companies since the BP 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 anti-drilling organization.
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 the ocean.
With hurricane season under way, the stakes are even higher as strong winds and choppy seas severely compromise conventional oil spill response technology.
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 advances.”
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.
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 liters) 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 — 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 invest more.
The industry maintains progress has been made in the decades since the 1989 Exxon-Valdez spill and the Gulf disaster.
After the Exxon Valdez disaster, the oil industry formed the Marine Spill Response Corporation to help it battle catastrophic spills.
“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 corporation.
“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 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