While rapid advances in offshore drilling technology allows the oil industry to tap pockets of hydrocarbons beneath thousands of feet of water and tens of thousands more of rock, methods for cleaning up deepwater spills remain low-tech and lowbrow.
"The technology is the same we've been relying on for a long time," said Greg Pollock, commissioner of the oil spill prevention and response program at Texas' General Land Office. "Nobody's developed a silver-bullet, technology-potion, formulation system -- whatever you want to call it. We're still dealing with spills the same way we were in the 1960s ... although we're better at it now."
Cleanup technologies are being put to the test this week as the massive oil slick drifts toward Gulf Coast wetlands from the site of the sunken Deepwater Horizon rig approximately 40 miles off the Louisiana coast.
The oil giant BP PLC and the Coast Guard, Minerals Management Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are scrambling to try to control a spill growing at a rate of 5,000 barrels a day. Their efforts have been frustrated by rough seas, weather conditions and the depth of the oil well. Today's forecast: winds from the southeast at 20 knots, 5- to 7-foot seas, and a slight chance of afternoon showers.
"There are really only three ways to remove oil from the surface of water," Pollock said in an interview. "You can physically recover it using mechanical means -- skimming, that's the tried and true way to go -- you can chemically disperse it ... or you can burn it."
So far, the response team has tried all three. It has deployed 217,000 feet of boom to corral the oil and has managed to recover 20,313 barrels (853,146 gallons) of an oil-and-water mix.
The team has also sprayed more than 139,000 gallons of chemical dispersant on the slick. Dispersant acts like detergent, partially dissolving in the oil and water and breaking the slick up into droplets that can spread through the water column and be processed by microbes.
"We burned 100 barrels of oil in 45 minutes" said Doug Suttles, BP's chief operating officer, describing the Wednesday burn in a conference call yesterday with reporters. "The technique clearly worked, so it puts another tool in the tool chest, but it can only be applied when the weather is good, and we can only burn between 500 and 1,000 barrels at a time."
The so-called in-situ burning method BP used is a proven technology, but it had not been used on open seas before, Pollock said. "We have tried an in-situ burn in water, but it wasn't 30 miles offshore," he said. "That poses significant operational challenges."
For one, the choppy seas in the open Gulf of Mexico pose challenges to deploying fire booms to encircle the slick. The fire booms are necessary to corral the oil because the slick has to be at least 3 millimeters thick in order to ignite, Pollock said. The spill is only about 1 or 2 millimeters thick without the booms, officials said.
"Some of these techniques, like in-situ burning on water, sound pretty basic but can be pretty effective -- if the conditions are right," said Nancy Kinner, director of the Coastal Response Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. "You can't do it if it's too choppy."
Suttles said BP is prepared to burn more when sea conditions improve.
'Thinking outside the box'
The gulf-spill response team is also planning to test another shallow-water technology to limit the spread of oil.
BP is building three massive containers that will be lowered to the seafloor, 5,000 feet below the water surface, to catch oil seeping from the open well. Once captured in the tent-like structures, the oil could be funneled to the surface through a series of pipes and carted away.
"In theory, it's a great idea," Kinner said. "But you're talking about stretching a mile of tube through the water and having a little dome on the end of it and trying to keep that dome over a certain hole."
She added, "I know that sounds relatively simple, but it's not an easy thing to do."
Of course, nobody's ever tried using the containers in such deep water.
"I commend them for really thinking outside the box," Pollock said. "I don't know if they'll be able to pull it off or not, but I can assure you they've got the most brilliant engineering minds in the world working on that, and it's absolutely worthy of a try."
It will likely be a few days before BP tests the technology. BP's Suttles said one containment chamber has already been constructed, and a drilling ship has been secured to install the infrastructure to support it. Two more containment chambers are currently being constructed, and the company is working to design, engineer and build the system's pipe work.
Suttles said the company also has plans to spread chemical dispersant at the source of the spill on the seafloor in addition to sprinkling it across the slick at the surface.
"We don't know if it will work, but we want to pursue every technique we can find in parallel," Suttles said.
And BP is also making plans to start drilling a relief well that, once complete, will relieve pressure on the well currently spewing thousands of barrels of oil into the open gulf. But even if the company begins drilling within 48 hours as planned, relief won't come for at least 90 days.
"Everything they do," Pollock said, "is difficult in 5,000 feet of water."