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.