Former Shell Oil Chief, Engineer: Supertankers Could Save the Gulf, So Why Won't BP Listen?

John Hofmeister and Nick Pozzi tell Fast Company how a possible solution to the Gulf Oil spill is sitting under BP's nose.

supertanker

Underwater robots, containment domes, top hats, hot taps, junk shots ... the potential fixes to the Gulf Oil Spill sound like they come straight from a cringeworthy disaster flick (or a PR think tank). But what if the solution is right under our noses? What if it's already sitting in the Gulf? John Hofmeister, the former president of Shell Oil, and Nick Pozzi, a former pipeline engineering and operations project manager for Saudi Aramco, think it might be.

According to Hofmeister, oil supertankers could be used to suck up massive amounts of oil—possibly millions of barrels at a time.

In an interview with FastCompany.com, Hofmeister explained that a little-known Saudi oil spill from an offshore platform in the early 1990s dumped more crude into the sea than any spill in U.S. history (think hundreds of millions of gallons). But the government and local press kept it quiet. And that's why one of the big fixes in the Saudi oil spill—the oil-skimming supertanker—hasn't been publicized.

"[They] figured out how to deploy supertankers that had the ability to both intake and discharge liquids in vast quantities with huge pumps," Hofmeister explained. "The supertankers could simply suck in seawater and oil simultaneously—they can hold millions of barrels—and when full, they could discharge oil at a port into tanks where they could separate oil from water. The idea is novel in that you can get massive of oil amounts quickly." Once the supertankers make it to to the port, water can be treated and discharged, and oil can either be used or destroyed.

Pozzi saw the technique used in the Middle East, where it recovered 85% of the oil from the Saudi spill. And he thinks it could work in the Gulf of Mexico. "The only downside is that you tie up oil tankers. That's why we think that BP won't listen to us. They don't want to spend that extra money."

After learning about the supertanker technique a few weeks ago, Hofmeister decided to bring it to the government's attention. "I've been trying to connect engineers with decision-makers at the Coast Guard and in the interior department," he said.

Pozzi and his business partner Jon King have also tried to contact officials, with no luck. "I called the President of BP, got his secretary and then got a call from a lady inside the building we were standing outside of. We never really heard back from her. Nick also knew some people and got one of the men in charge of the spill. He threatened to sue Nick for not going through channels," King said.

But even if BP and the government both approve the technique, it will take a while before it can be implemented. "A lot of these supertankers are sitting on the ocean full of oil. How do you get them empty? It may take some time to organize," Hofmeister explained. And, of course, organizers will have to make sure that the supertankers don't crash into each other. All the more reason to get started now.

BP would be wise to listen to Pozzi, who has 40 years of experience in the oil and gas industry. "It's what you can't see that's going to hurt you for years to come. What you see now is just the tip of the iceberg," he said.

Hofmeister, however, has confidence in the oil spill cleanup effort. "There are 13,000 people organized and engaged at cleaning up this spill. It's kind of remarkable to put that kind of task force together in this kind of time frame," he said. "I think there are very smart people managing this process."

Speaking of that process, BP's latest video as been released, and it shows the failed attempt to lower the cofferdam over the gushing well. Remember, this thing is 98 tons and 40 feet tall. Puts that spewing pipe in perspective.

Read more about the Gulf Oil Spill

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11 Comments

  • Lawrence Baker

    Gulf Oil Flow-Supertankers Clean Up-596 million gallons!
    Two months after the Gulf oil well disaster the wellhead oil flow and oil spill remain out of control with no positive action planned to control and suck up the oil at sea before it makes landfall 48 miles away or inters the international Gulf Stream!
    That condition is not acceptable! People in charge need to go!
    President Obama, Fire BP and appoint proven environmental disaster expert and engineer Nick Pozzi and oil expert and former (Dutch) Shell Oil president John Hofmeister to be in charge of a independent “Stop the Gulf Oil Flow & Clean Up Task Force” to take positive action today.
    We need a fleet of Supertankers on site today to recover millions of gallons of oil before it reaches land 48 miles away!
    Dutch and Belgium three days after the oil spill offered to help (thank you) but was turned down. They have world renowned technology and expertise to respond to ocean oil spills with a specialized fleet of ocean going ships; they are oil spill professionals that have a proven and positive plan. In short they are prepared for an oil spill.
    The US obviously, is not prepared for an oil spill and has no positive plans for either stopping the flow of oil permanently or for cleaning up the oil on the ocean before it reaches land 48 miles away!
    Why should Big Oil be prepared in the US, it is easier, and cheaper, to buy corrupt politicians and use in-house illegal, unethical, and unhealthy dispersants than to be prepared for an oil spill. Hell, let nature take care of it!
    Dutch and Belgium have a national ocean oil spill response plan and the specialized equipment to do the job. If the same circumstances happened 48 miles off their coast; the oil spill would have not reached shore. They typically would have set up at least 3 perimeters of oil containment on site and used their specialized fleet of tankers and suction oil equipment to suck the millions of barrels of oil into their fleet of tankers.
    That oil saved (cleaned up) is processed into fuel; there are no dispersants used! The oil on the surface and at dept below the surface is cleaned up and processed! That’s green, in a way!
    The US is backward and sadly corrupt and has no oil spill response plan, expertise or modern equipment to respond; their clean up methods are mean in nature, fatalistic suicidal and archaic. Instead of cleaning up the oil at sea, illegal dispersants (over a million gallons) has been used to spread the oil into the ocean ecosystem to hide it! That’s the “no!!! oil recovery plan”.
    There is no plan for stopping the oil flow permanently (relief wells are very tenuous and dangerous) and the extent of the damage to the wellhead and sea floor is kept secret. The controlled mass media is complicit. That’s the “no!!! stop the oil flow plan”.
    The US and BP strategy is to lie and cover up the wellhead and sea floor damage, dispersant health damage, oil flow rate and the extent of the oil spill with a controlled mass media “Gulf Oil Spill black out” and with the ongoing misleading propaganda that never address the true oil spill issues and ramifications (brainwashing). Money can buy anything, right?
    For example: The largest oil spill in the world, the Arabian Oil Spill 1993 to 1994, was kept secret (media black out) from the world by the Saudi government and went unreported for 17 years. The spill was estimated to be 700 million gallons, 65 times larger than the Exxon Valdez spill. 85 percent of that spill, an estimated 596 million gallons, was cleaned up on the surface and at dept with the use of Supertankers.
    One engineer in charge of that massive undertaking was Mr. Pozzi; experienced engineers and scientist like him should be in charge of the Gulf Oil Spill via an independent task force.
    Read more: http://www.esquire.com/blogs/p...
    The US needs to stop the use of illegal, unhealthy dispersants and change our unreasonable, unscientific and suicidal course.
    American citizens need to gain control of this ecological and economic catastrophe today by using available science with clean up Supertankers and Dutch and Belgium state of the art oil spill clean up technology and equipment.
    Blog President Obama, We Demand Change Now!!! Head of State or Head on stick!!!

  • Paco

    Why on earth wouldn't they use the supertankers now? Because BP has little interest in cleanup activities. Why should they? They are in the business of drilling and extracting, not in environmental protection. Cleanup is not in their corporate culture.

    The better question is why our government has failed us. It is their job to protect us and this means they should be protecting the environment cleaning up messes like this. If cleanup means the use of supertankers then our government should be building supertankers to use in cleanup rather than building nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers that can only be used to fight the last century's wars. Protecting the environment is this century's war.

  • Alyson Cozzolina

    WHY on earth wouldn't they use the supertankers now? It's not like they are focusing on any solution other than the relief well, which isn't going to be finished until August. The supertankers can only help- not hurt anything- and they need all the help they can get. The fact that they are doing NOTHING is infuriating. This is so ridiculously insane, I can't fathom that oil companies don't already have supertankers as part of their immediate emergency response plan. Then again, they didn't seem to have ANY emergency response plan at all, so it couldn't have been included in something that doesn't exist...

  • Leonard E. Serrano

    There is a lot of focus on stopping the oil leak and I feel containment could be the short term less expensive alternative until a fix is made. Building a containment chute out of gortex or less expensive nylon around the leak, held down by heavy ballasts would bring the oil up to a specific area where it can be sucked up by tankers. The same procedure could be used to contain and gather the oil near the surface by making containment curtains and pulling them using two or more ships. This could be the answer to preventing more oil from reaching the shoreline or spreading out further, since it seems the present techniques are failing to hold the oil in choppy seas. I would really like to see the leak stopped but I feel this would buy the time needed to create a true fix for this out of control leak.

    Leonard E. Serrano leoeserrano@yahoo.com

  • ginger wachtler

    I am not very exsperienced in this matter ,I am very concerned I tried to call BPs ways to help line tonight I let it ring for at least 10 minutes and nothing ring ring ring I got disconnected and I had more luck with getting the white houses answering machine , this is very sad. I think the tankers syphonig the oil is a darn good one why risk more damage are we crazy we need our ocean and we are killing everything that the oil touches please PRESIDENT OBAMA I HOPE you will think about the consequences of what could happen if the drilling more holes doesnt work we need some help here .The ocean and inoccent creatures need you to make a wise choice.I canvased for you, I voted for you please dont let our ocean get ruined by this .Corporate america will let them off the hook by claiming bankrupcy.PLEASE HELP OUR WILDLIFE and we could maybe recover the oil as well with filtering

  • Bill

    The solution that uses the 98 ton steel -concrete that was suppose to bring oil from the deep broken pipe to the surface is a great idea. The fact that ice formed inside the system is an expected problem in deep water in the ocean. There are two sources of solution to the ice forming problem. 1-We could introduce a cover in the bottom of the cofferdam. 2-the bottom cover is made of segments that can be opened near the bottom (When the cofferdam reaches near to the spilling broken pipe). 3-We could also introduce a hearter near the bottom of the cofferdam. The bottom should act as a segmented multi control valves. Bill Makari,P.Eng., Canada 1-714-655-4796 email: harborhomesinc@gmail.com

  • Tyler Gray

    Hey Bill, Thanks for this. We used it along with a few others in a new post about how The Guardian (UK) is also asking readers to suggest new ideas to try and fix this thing. We used your suggestion to kick off another round of calls to similarly inclined folks to submit ideas. Who knows. Maybe the right people are reading. http://www.fastcompany.com/164...

  • leslie connolly

    unfortunately our elected officials seem to see this as a cosmetic rather than environmental problem and have ok'd bp's plan to compound the disaster with the addition of tons of dispersal agents despite the warnings from marine biologists of the deadly effects on the entire marine ecosystem of such a step. rome is burning, put down the violins and get serious. this is not a messy beach- oyster bar problem it is a global disaster that is getting worse and worse

  • J Just

    Every oil well in Texas is equipped with a water/oil separator since there is ALWAYS water (ancient sea water) with the oil. The "cut" of oil is the % of oil v. water. And, abandoned oil wells can be repurposed, with Texas RR Commission approval, as salt water disposal wells. So it isn't a reach to pump the oil/water mixture from the tanker into a disposal well once pipes are laid and pumps are in place.

    There should be stand-by rapid response equipment, with a specific plan and approvals in place to handle the next disaster. and the oil revenues should pay for it.

  • Karl Baldwin

    Why not use the 98 ton Cofferdam rig to crush the end of the leaking pipe shut. Then raise it and relower it over the other leak and start sucking.

  • Tyler Gray

    Early Friday morning, we updated this story with two more sources, who offered expert commentary on the supertanker idea and their experiences trying to get that idea to government and BP officials. Given that they won't seem to act on it, we thought the story with this new reporting was worth featuring again.