• 11.28.11

Preventing The Next BP Oil Spill With Government-Funded Innovation

The Department of Energy is doling out money to some high-tech oil drilling projects. If we’re going to be drilling, we might as well invest time and money in making it as safe as possible.

Post-BP oil spill, it’s hard to deny that deep water drilling is dangerous. And yet, oil companies are charging ahead with drilling in risky locations like the Arctic, even though they don’t have reasonable contingency plans if something goes wrong in remote waters. If the oil giants can’t be trusted to beef up safety, maybe the government can.


The Department of Energy recently announced that it is handing out $9.6 million to six projects that aim to make deep water drilling both less risky and more environmentally sound. Some may argue that this is an impossible task, but the projects seem promising.

Lockheed Martin will receive $1.65 million to develop an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) equipped with a 3-D-laser-imaging system that can reportedly inspect underwater equipment four times more efficiently than divers or other remotely operated vehicles. The Marlin AUV offers 3-D images up to 1,000 feet underwater, operates in tight spaces, and can cruise continuously for 16 hours. What it can’t do, however, is actually fix broken equipment.

The University Corporation for Atmospheric Research hopes to prevent drilling disasters before they happen. The organization is taking $1.44 million from the DOE to research the severity of future storms in the Gulf of Mexico in the hopes that it can generate offshore drilling equipment designs that are better suited to withstand natural disasters.

Nautilus International is taking a different tack with a system that will cheaply allow oil operations to maintain deepwater wells. The system is economical enough that Nautilus believes it could stimulate drilling in smaller deep water fields that might not otherwise be developed. Now that oil supplies are getting tight, these smaller fields are becoming increasingly attractive.

What we would really like to see is funding for projects intended to work specifically on Arctic drilling. As of last May, the U.K. Foreign Office believed that a BP-sized oil spill in the Arctic could go unchecked for months because of remoteness (the nearest Coast Guard base to the Arctic is over 1,000 miles away), freezing temperatures, and lack of oil-eating bacteria. Whether any of the DOE’s projects could help out with those problems remains to be seen.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.