There's a potential solution to the Gulf oil spill that neither BP, nor the federal government, nor anyone — save a couple intuitive engineers — seems willing to try. As The Politics Blog reported on Tuesday in an interview with former Shell Oil president John Hofmeister, the untapped solution involves using empty supertankers to suck the spill off the surface, treat and discharge the contaminated water, and either salvage or destroy the slick.
Hofmeister had been briefed on the strategy by a Houston-based environmental disaster expert named Nick Pozzi, who has used the same solution on several large spills during almost two decades of experience in the Middle East — who says that it could be deployed easily and should be, immediately, to protect the Gulf Coast. That it hasn't even been considered yet is, Pozzi thinks, owing to cost considerations, or because there's no clear chain of authority by which to get valuable ideas in the right hands. But with BP's latest four-pronged plan remaining unproven, and estimates of company liability already reaching the tens of billions of dollars (and counting), supertankers start to look like a bargain.
The suck-and-salvage technique was developed in desperation across the Arabian Gulf following a spill of mammoth proportions — 700 million gallons — that has until now gone unreported, as Saudi Arabia is a closed society, and its oil company, Saudi Aramco, remains owned by the House of Saud. But in 1993 and into '94, with four leaking tankers and two gushing wells, the royal family had an environmental disaster nearly sixty-five times the size of Exxon Valdez on its hands, and it desperately needed a solution.
Pozzi, an American engineer then in charge of Saudi Aramco's east-west pipeline in the technical support and maintenance services division, was part of a team given cart blanche to control the blowout. Pozzi had dealt with numerous spills over the years without using chemicals, and had tried dumping flour into the oil, then scooping the resulting tar balls from the surface. "You ever cooked with flour? Absorbent, right?" Pozzi says. Next, he'd dumped straw into the spills; also highly absorbent, but then you've got a lot of straw to clean up. This spill was going to require a much larger, more sustained solution. And fast.
That's when Pozzi and his team came up with the idea of having empty ships park near the Saudi spill and pull the oil off the water. This part of the operation went on for six months, with the mop-up operations lasting for several years more. Pozzi says that 85 percent of the spilled oil was recovered, and it is precisely this strategy that he wants to see deployed in the Gulf of Mexico.
Yesterday, I spoke to Pozzi and his business partner, longtime Houston lawyer Jon King, about their proposed solution, and the difficulties they've encountered trying to assist in the disaster, with both BP and the government. While BP is attempting its very difficult maneuvers to contain the gusher at the source, they say, nothing is being done to adequately address the slick itself. Dispersant is being used by the ton, some of the oil is being burned, and there have been other efforts, which taken together, Pozzi likens to "a flea on an elephant's ass." The two men have been trying to rally support since just after the rig blew up, without much success. This has been typical of their experience:
"Daddy, did you remember to send out the supertankers?"