One of the most vexing problems of the Deepwater Horizon spill of 2010 was that the 5 million barrels of oil were released from an inaccessible location — the bottom of the sea — into the open ocean.
As oil reached the surface, it immediately dispersed, churned by the wind and waves, making its recovery nearly impossible for the dozens of response craft that fanned out over the trackless sea. Those that did reach the spill were frustrated by the surface-oil’s tendency to override the miles of containment boom, which is really only effective in protected waters. The same was true of 1990s-vintage skimmers, which tended to gobble up more water than oil.
Just as the Exxon Valdez spill begat the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA 90) and the nonprofit consortium Marine Spill Response Corp. (MSRC), so too did Deepwater Horizon bring forth a flurry of responses, both in regulatory and industry arenas.
One such response was an enormous effort by MSRC to enhance its spill effectiveness in the Gulf should another spill occur. Dubbed Deep Blue, the expansion program repurposed one of MSRC’s 210-foot response vessels — Delaware Responder has been rechristened Deep Blue Responder and is now based in Port Fourchon, La. — and added numerous floating assets and shipboard recovery equipment to its inventory.
“Deep Blue is a major expansion that takes into account both technology and lessons learned from the unfortunate Deepwater Horizon incident,” said MSRC spokeswoman Judith Roos.
The goal of the expansion effort was to put a considerably larger squadron of vessels within 60 hours of any open-ocean spill, according to Roos.
The program includes an additional 65,000 feet of containment boom; a re-engineered fleet of dedicated barges with updated skimming equipment and 48,000-barrel containment capacity; x-band radar and infrared technology on 17 member vessels; and signed contracts with Edison Chouest Offshore and Hornbeck Offshore to accommodate skimming and containing equipment on their vessels.
The best skimming technology now in commercial use effectively doubles the oil-recovery rate, according to MSRC, bringing it to an estimated 22,000 barrels per day.
The MSRC is looking to improve on that by working with newer technology still under development. For example, the X Prize Foundation’s Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X Challenge awarded a $1 million prize last year to Elastec/American Marine for a prototype skimmer that is said to achieve an 89 percent recovery rate (5,000 barrels per minute).
Roos said the MSRC is working closely with both Elastec/American Marine and the X Challenge finalists. Contracts for Deep Blue equipment were awarded long before the X Challenge award was announced, she said.
“As their interesting concepts evolve to a commercial offering, we will be watching closely, providing our input as experienced operators, and assessing their addition to our capability,” Roos said. Each element of spill response is reliant upon the other, she noted, particularly in open-ocean conditions. Spotter planes can quickly pinpoint a spill’s geographic range and relay coordinates to surface-response vessels responsible for containment and skimming.
Deep Blue vessels are equipped with centrifuge equipment, allowing them to separate oil from water during deployment. The vessels can then pump the water back overboard and the recovered oil into barges. Previous technology required barges to bring the unseparated oily water ashore. The centrifuges should result in considerable savings in cost and time.
Deep Blue also includes additional airborne assets. MSRC now operates six dedicated aircraft nationwide — two based in the Gulf — so that aerial spotting, spraying of dispersant and controlled burning can be conducted efficiently.