Two decades after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, cleanup technology has progressed so little that the biggest advancement in the Gulf of Mexico disaster — at least in the public’s mind — is an oil-water separator based on a 17-year-old patent and promoted by the movie star Kevin Costner.
Experts say there have been some improvements in skimmers and other existing technologies since the 1989 Exxon accident in Alaska. Dispersants to break up oil have been far more widely used in the Deepwater Horizon leak in the gulf than in any previous spill, and they have been used for the first time underwater. Controlled burns of oil — only tested in 1989 — have been conducted regularly in the gulf.
But more significant advances have been hampered by a lack of money for research and laws and regulations that make it difficult to test new ideas and introduce improved equipment. In the gulf spill, the laying of boom and the skimming of oil remain a last, and not completely effective, line of defense for coastal areas. Skimming, for instance, cannot be done in rough seas and is often limited to daylight hours because of the difficulties in detecting oil at night.
Even officials with BP, the company responsible for the gulf spill and cleanup, acknowledge that most of the equipment in use represents improvements in old technology, and cite the lack of major spills in the past two decades as one reason.
“The events haven’t driven the technology change that’s out there,” Doug Suttles, BP’s chief operating officer, told a TV interviewer recently. “I think this event probably will.”
BP said last week that it would buy 32 of Mr. Costner’s machines to help clean the oil spill. But the machines work much better on fresh oil than weathered oil, so it is unclear how much of a contribution they will make.
Experts in cleanup technologies say that there are no magic-bullet approaches on the horizon and that in some ways, cleanup is limited by a basic fact of nature: oil and water do not mix.
“I’m not saying there aren’t ways to improve or tweak the system,” said Nancy E. Kinner, co-director of the Coastal Response Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, which seeks to develop new approaches to spill response. “But you’re not going to change the laws of physics.”
Ms. Kinner and others cite many other reasons why cleanup technologies lag.
In testimony this month before Congress, Mr. Costner told of years of woe trying to market his separator, a centrifuge originally developed and patented in 1993 by the Idaho National Laboratory, for use in oil spills. One obstacle, he said, was that although his machines are effective, the water they discharge is still more contaminated than environmental regulations allow. He could not get spill-response companies interested in his machines, he said, without a federal stamp of approval.
Beyond regulatory obstacles, a major reason for the dearth of new technologies has been a lack of money for research. Programs that were flush with cash in the 1990s after the Exxon Valdez spill and the subsequent creation of the Oil Pollution Act have had their appropriations dry up over the past decade. And research money from oil companies has declined in the same period.
“Funding goes up and down like a roller coaster” as public and political interest builds after a spill and then wanes, said Mervin Fingas, a consultant in Edmonton, Alberta, who has written a book on cleanup technologies.
“It’s really a big problem trying to do proper research during these cycles,” Mr. Fingas said.
Kurt Hansen, project manager for spill research with the Coast Guard’s Research and Development Center in New London, Conn., said that in the 1990s, his group’s budget was $5 million to $6 million a year.
“Now we’re spending about three-quarters of a million,” Mr. Hansen said.
Research is hampered in other ways. For example, there is only one place in the United States — a center in New Jersey operated by the Minerals Management Service — where cleanup technologies can be tested, at full scale, on spilled oil. Other countries, notably Norway and Canada, allow occasional testing involving intentional spills into the environment, although only after an exhaustive permitting process.
In the United States, just obtaining oil for use in small-scale laboratory research can be extremely difficult, said Scott Pegau, research program director of the Oil Spill Recovery Institute, a research center established in Cordova, Alaska, after the Exxon Valdez spill. Mr. Pegau said it recently took him months to obtain less than a gallon of crude.
“Companies are concerned that I use it properly,” he said.
Oil spill experts also say that much of the research that has been conducted may have, in retrospect, focused on the wrong target. For years scientists and environmentalists have been concerned about the possibility of a spill in Arctic and near-Arctic areas, with their fragile ecosystems and extreme drilling conditions.
But with a runaway gusher 5,000 feet under the surface of the gulf, “now we know it’s quite extreme there,” Ms. Kinner said.
Ken Lee, executive director of a Canadian government center for offshore gas and oil research, said scientists had made progress in developing better ways to cope with spills in cold environments. One approach, Mr. Lee said, is to introduce fine mineral particles that help the oil naturally disperse, after which it can be degraded by bacteria.
But the research is not particularly useful for the current spill, he said, because the Gulf of Mexico is naturally full of fine mineral particles, so presumably much natural dispersion is happening anyway.
For years after the Exxon Valdez disaster, scientists studied the possibility of improving bacterial degradation by adding different, perhaps even genetically engineered, bacteria to the water in the vicinity of a spill. A more voracious microbe, the thinking went, would eat more oil.
“In reality, adding bacteria is sort of a dream,” Mr. Lee said.
Since no one bacterium degrades all the components of oil, he said, “there’s no net advantage in adding one bug.” And studies showed that natural bacteria often quickly beat out any new designer microbes added to the mix.
Ms. Kinner and others said that with all the attention being paid to the gulf spill, the prospects for more research money had brightened considerably. This month, for instance, the Coast Guard issued a call for research proposals related to the gulf disaster, including ideas for “innovative applications not commonly used for oil response.”
“It’s totally turned around, and there’s a kind of chaos,” Ms. Kinner said. “It’s one of those things where we’ve gone from feast to famine, and now from famine to feast.”