Expect a lasting legacy after oil finally stops flowing into the Gulf of Mexico from the well drilled by the Deepwater Horizon. Cleanup and restoration will take a long time, probably decades. Long-term changes in spill-response planning and regulation undoubtedly also will occur.
The disaster hopefully will spur emergence of better technology for handling oil spills. Many current efforts, such as marshaling hordes of people to shovel up oil from beaches or pluck globs from marshes, and deploying mechanical skimmers to remove oil on the water's surface, are primitive but useful. However, they can't do a thorough enough job. Hopefully chemical engineers and processing technology can play a significant role in restoring the environment and reclaiming the crude.
The Deepwater Horizon Unified Command, which includes BP, Transocean and a multitude of federal departments and agencies, has a website that provides information on how to submit suggestions. It notes that the Interagency Alternative Technology Assessment Program workgroup (IATAP), formed for the Deepwater Horizon leak, has established a process to collect oil-spill-response solutions from scientists and vendors and review them based on technical feasibility, efficacy and deployability. The site also mentions that more than 20,000 ideas have been sent directly to BP, which has implemented a review process to evaluate all of them. [Editor's Note: This site is no longer available. The site, Deepwater Horizon Response & Restoration, is from the U.S. Department of the Interior]
Independent websites also are getting into the act. For instance, www.whatshouldbpdo.com solicits ideas for cleanup and stopping oil flow. Among the suggestions posted are bioremediation via oil-consuming microbes and using diatomaceous earth in marshlands. The site allows visitors to vote on the ideas — an interesting if not particularly useful exercise given that popularity doesn't necessarily equate with viability. For more on this site and its "crowdsourcing" approach, see CP's online blog.
Of course, lots of inventors and investors are touting particular proprietary technology. Some solutions are naïve or at least not well enough developed, let alone proven. The background and technical expertise of their backers also doesn't always inspire confidence. I, for one, was surprised and a bit skeptical when I saw actor Kevin Costner talking about how to handle the spill.
I didn't realize he co-owned a company, Ocean Therapy Solutions, that's developed an oil/water centrifugal separator; he reportedly has been involved in this venture for 15 years and has invested $24 million in it. BP now has signed a letter of intent to deploy 32 of the company's V20 machines. Each is said to be capable of handling 210,000 gallons of oily water per day. Several units already are operating in the gulf. Kevin, please accept my apology for not taking you seriously at first.
Of course, lots of attention will focus on finding ways to minimize the risk that such a mishap can happen again — or at least to ensure that a well-thought-out effective response plan is in place. Regulatory changes are inevitable. While some specifically will target drilling, others likely will have a far broader impact on industry.
In that light, Jody Freeman, a Harvard Law School professor, who served as the White House's energy and climate change counselor from January 2009 to last March, offered some thought-provoking comments in a recent column in The New York Times:
"Overlooked in this debate is the fact that regulators need carrots, not just sticks. That's why we should start rewarding companies that have exemplary safety records, exceed pollution standards and produce exceptional disaster response plans. Such incentives should never replace fines and penalties… but they could be a helpful complement.
"Likewise, we should speed up the permit process as an incentive for companies that go beyond the legal minimum requirements, pay for backup safety systems and provide superior worker training for spill response. Providing such rewards would encourage continuous improvement in technology and disaster planning. Industry leaders would be recognized for outpacing their competitors.
"The Environmental Protection Agency tried this kind of approach during the Clinton administration, back when Carol Browner, now the White House energy and climate adviser, was the administrator. Companies that found innovative ways of going above and beyond baseline air and water pollution limits got rewarded with faster permitting. The program, called Project XL, was largely viewed as a success, but it ended in 2002."
Freeman makes a compelling case. Government regulators should consider incentives, not just penalties, in creating and revising rules. Wrongdoers certainly should suffer but companies that significantly exceed requirements deserve rewards.
Let's hope technology developers and regulators can rise to the challenge.