Seven weeks after the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil platform, oil slicks have inundated the shores of mainland United States. Traditional oil recovery methods have proved inept.
BP has collected only 25 million gallons of oil and water from the surface of the Gulf and burned 238,000 barrels into the atmosphere — leaving plenty of oil to suffocate marshes, turn beaches black and poison marine life. A normally optimistic friend of mine recently joked that BP had discovered an organic, biodegradable material to absorb oil: pelicans.
That cynicism is poisonous, but it is not without justification. With over 100,000 solutions proposed via a highly publicized suggestion line, BP, the US Government and sub-contractors have plenty of available, established technologies to choose from. And yet, from many accounts, the technology sits idle along the gulf, waiting for permission to deploy.
For example, as we reported last week, Ecosphere Technologies signed a letter of intent with Mid-Gulf Recovery Services two weeks ago. Prompted by your (and our) curiosity about the lack of news reporting a deployment, we spoke with Charles Vinick, Chairman at Ecosphere.
He told us Ecosphere has two processing units waiting in New Orleans ready to deploy and has received permission from a client, Southwestern Energy, to move more units to the gulf as soon as they’re ordered to deploy. In addition, Ecosphere is preparing to produce more units, in the case the deployment develops into a long-term contract. At this point, they’re just waiting for the word, “Go.” But there’s no way to know how long they’ll be waiting.
Similarly, AbTech Industries, who we’ve reported on twice, told us via their public relations firm that they and we would have to wait two to three more weeks for word on their technology’s implementation in the gulf. Kevin Costner’s Ocean Therapy Solutions didn’t deploy their technology for over a month after announcing their agreement with BP.
It’s not an unusual situation. Many companies with viable solutions are voicing their frustration at delays. Some have received no more than a form letter expressing interest. BP has outlined a four-stage gauntlet that a suggestion must run in order to be implemented on the gulf.
The process involves initial filtering by 70 BP employees who forward the best ideas to a second stage for vetting by 43 engineers from BP, the Coast Guard and other agencies. A third stage involves feasibility tests by smaller teams of engineers. If a suggestion makes it through stage three, operations staff within BP advise if the suggestion should receive real-world testing. The process takes weeks: even when a suggestion is accepted, BP or their sub-contractors must then negotiate with the technologies’ owners.
While it is common sense to vet and test new technologies, the urgency of this crisis is not matched by the vetting process. During peace there is ample time for perfection, but during crisis, leaders must prioritize prolificacy.
In some industries, business methodologies have shifted from, “Plan for six months to make sure we get it right the first time,” to, “Given short deadlines, release a product in two weeks. Then release an improved version of that product two weeks later.” This “Agile Methodology” has transformed the process of designing software and websites, delivering working products to market in weeks instead of years and thereby accelerating innovation (remember how long Google’s GMail was in beta?).
While Agile Methodology was developed for software, its principles can be applied to flexible product development. In the case of BP’s oil spill, agility would prescribe an all-hands-on-deck approach to oil spill response, deploying any and every plausible, safe solution immediately, regardless of absolute efficiency and proven effectiveness. Then, adapt the deployment as necessity dictates, gradually favoring the technologies that prove themselves most effective and efficient.
The greatest objection to a massive, immediate deployment will be from those worried about damaging the environment by deploying potentially harmful, undertested technologies. However, the rule of law still applies, and irresponsible companies and individuals will be prosecuted, just as profiteers are punished during wartime.
A second answer to the objection is to set simple principles to govern permitted products, such as “no non-solid or leaching unnatural or synthetic substances” (whoops, there went dispersants) and “water returned to the ocean must be cleaner than it was before”.
And while potentially harmful technologies are a valid concern, we have to remind the objectors: the majority of the northern Gulf of Mexico is now covered with a toxic substance and the primary response thus far has been to utilize another potentially toxic substance and to dispose of said toxic substances in toxic ways. Really: air bubbles, SmartSponges and clay can’t be as bad as dispersants and burning oil.
Further, while negotiations are a normal part of business operations, BP is not in a position to make demands. Any progress cleaning up the oil spill will be in the interests of both the contracted company and BP itself; therefore, delays at the negotiation stage are counterproductive.
Still further, shareholders should not concern themselves with how much cleaning up the oil spill will cost. They should be concerned about how much NOT cleaning up the oil spill will cost over the next decades, especially as current cleanup costs escalate. BP has spent $100 million a day for the past three days, up from $6 million a day at the beginning of the crisis.
Initial deployment of a flotilla of advanced water technologies might increase those costs initially, but as effective, efficient technologies can be identified by real-world testing, the cost of the flotilla could rapidly decrease, eventually reducing overall recovery costs and certainly mitigating long-term reparations.