07/28/2010 03:39 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Gulf Oil Spill: An Assessment Ongoing

This post was co-authored by Dr. Joseph S. Maresca.

Months have passed since the gas explosion and commencement of an uncontrolled oil spill throughout the Gulf of Mexico starting on April 20, 2010. The spill has been virtually contained since last Thursday's seemingly successful cap.

Government and BP scientists spent continuous time monitoring the tight-fitting cap that was installed on the wellhead. This attempt has marked the first successful one in nearly three months to halt the worst oil spill in U.S. history.

A higher comfort level will be attained the longer the cap stays relatively intact. The cap is a temporary solution until BP completes the drilling of relief wells to plug the leak permanently as early as mid-August. Some oil and gas may continue to leak in smaller amounts although this event has not worried BP and government officials enough to remove the cap. So far, the well bore has held, although engineers were prepared to reopen the capped well on a moment's notice in the event of major problems.

BP has projected that the oil cleanup effort would cost $100 million per day. Satellite images show oil slicks affecting beaches from Gulfport, Mississippi to Destin, Florida. After having seen this tremendous oil spill, the question remains as to the approach BP will employ to contain the oil and cleanup the growing spill. BP claims (as per the website) that work continues to collect and disperse oil that has reached the surface of the sea.

Some of the numbers are staggering. The company intends to protect the shoreline of the Gulf of Mexico, and to collect and clean up any oil that has reached shore. Over 39,000 personnel, almost 5,000 vessels and some 110 aircraft are now engaged in the response effort. Operations to skim oil from the surface of the water now have recovered, in total, approximately 652,000 barrels (27 million gallons) of oily liquid. This amount could represent a mere 15 percent of the total spill.

In addition, a total of 275 controlled burns have been carried out to date, removing an estimated 238,000 barrels of oil from the sea's surface. The total length of containment boom deployed as part of efforts to prevent oil from reaching the coast is now over 2.9 million feet (over 550 miles), and over 4.7 million feet (almost 900 miles) of sorbent boom also has been deployed. While these are large numbers, there is better and more urgently needed technology to deploy.

Mr. Kevin Costner, the well-known actor, has invested some $20 million and spent over a decade developing oil separating centrifuges. He helped found a manufacturer, Ocean Therapy Solutions, to advance his brother's research in the high technology of spill cleanup. In congressional testimony, Costner explained the device's operation. For instance, the device spins oil-contaminated water rapidly in order to separate the oil and direct it to a containment tank. The device in the preferred mode of operation can take in thousands of gallons of oil-tainted water and remove up to 99 percent of the oil.

An oil-separating centrifuge manufactured by Ocean Therapy Solutions marks a major breakthrough in spill cleanup technology. BP, after testing the device, plans to order 32 more of the Costner-endorsed centrifuges to aid in the Gulf cleanup effort. BP posted a video of a recent news conference to its YouTube. The video shows Costner and BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles making a joint announcement on the Costner-endorsed centrifuges. Yet there is another way to clean up the Gulf oil spill: Use supertankers to suck up the oil fouling the Gulf of Mexico.

The Saudis employed this method in a cleanup project after a spill in the early '90s dumped huge amounts of oil. The Saudis discovered how to deploy supertankers with the ability to process large amounts of liquids utilizing huge pumps. The process involves siphoning the seawater and oil. Then, the tankers head for port where the matter is discharged into tanks
so that the liquids can be separated and the oil preserved or discarded. A large amount of oil was recovered from the Saudi spill -- well over 50 percent. The catch is that many oil tankers must be utilized to accomplish the process within a reasonable time period.

The global public is waiting to see whether or not BP will also utilize supertankers to facilitate a quicker cleanup. Plugging the well entirely will be difficult because the column of mud BP will pump into the wellbore must have a greater pressure than the adjacent rocks. The company will drill thousands of feet deep. The difficult part to orchestrate involves getting enough pressure from the mud to stop the flow of oil so that the well can be sealed forever with concrete.

Recently, BP agreed to an independently administered $20 billion dollar claims compensation fund for economic damages resulting from the oil spill. The cleanup effort is separate from this compensation fund. In addition to these costs, the value of BP stock has fallen considerably although there has been some recovery due to the promise of success from the recent plug.. Readers may ask why BP is culpable. There are specific UK Offshore Safety, Fire Prevention, Incident Detection and Offshore Installations regulations which may have reasonably precluded this incident from occurring. Since these regulations represent the standard of care at the head office (St. James St., London), a lack of culpability will be a much harder sell.

In our view, the more important question involves whether or not the UK standard or one like this standard should be made into a global standard given that these standards could have prevented the incident if adhered to.

UK Offshore Safety Regulations

There are 4 sets of UK regulations which are applicable to this particular sector and BP must comply with these when operating in the UK. They are;
a) The Offshore Installation (Safety Case) Regulations 1992 -- all mobile and fixed offshore installations which operate in UK waters must have a safety case which requires that all safety critical elements on installations must be approved by the Health and Safety Executive
b) The Offshore Installations (Prevention of Fire and Explosion and Emergency Response) Regulations 1995 -- These regulations are aimed at protecting offshore workers from fire and explosions . In addition, proper procedures are to be in place to provide a rapid response from emergency services should a fire or explosion occur.

Prevention of fire and explosion
9.-(1) The duty holder shall take appropriate measures with a view to preventing fire and explosion, including such measures to-
(a) ensure the safe production, processing, use, storage, handling, treatment, movement and other dealings with flammable and explosive substances;
(b) prevent the uncontrolled release of flammable or explosive substances; (c) prevent the unwanted or unnecessary accumulation of combustible,
flammable or explosive substances and atmospheres; and (d) prevent the ignition of such substances and atmospheres.
(2) The measures to prevent ignition referred to in paragraph (1) shall include- (a) identifying and designating areas in which there is a risk of a flammable
or explosive atmosphere occurring; (b) controlling the carrying on of hazardous activities in such areas;
(c) ensuring that, save under procedures pursuant to sub-paragraph (b) above, no plant is used in such areas unless suitable for use within them; and
(d) controlling the placing or use in such areas of electrical fixtures or other sources of ignition.

Detection of incidents
10. The duty holder shall take appropriate measures -- (a) with a view to detecting fire and other events which may require emergency response, including the provision of means for- (i) detecting and recording accumulations of flammable or toxic gases; and
(ii) identifying leakages of flammable liquids; and (b) with a view to enabling information regarding such incidents to be conveyed forthwith
to places from which control action can be instigated.
c) The Offshore Installation and Pipeline Works (Management and Administration) Regulations 1995 -- are aimed at the safe management
of offshore installations, generally. d) The Offshore Installations and Wells (Design and Construction, etc) Regulations 1996 -- are concerned with the safety of offshore and onshore wells, the integrity of installations and the overall safety of the offshore working environment.

Source: UK Offshore Regulations

Wherever oil drilling programs continue in the United States, there must be an enforced program of contingency and disaster recovery planning and testing. This requirement would provide a methodical approach toward routine exigencies in this industry. Enforced compliance would lead to higher standards of safety and care and not simply the lowest applicable with international enforcement.

Apparently, people soon forget tragedies and move on. We have an opportunity to use this moment to gain some traction in the many alternative energy sources that do not carry such high environmental risks. The totality of this Gulf oil spill and previous ones beg for a more comprehensive approach toward phasing out oil drilling in favor of newer technologies like the artificial sun, coal gasification, solar energy, geothermal, wind energy, natural gas and ocean wave technology.

Unsustainable is a euphemism for doomed and so we call on the public to set a new course towards a future where toxic black gunk is not the primary source of the world's energy. Right now, governments are struggling with the related question of whether or not to
allow new offshore oil permits in the not too distant future.