It was treated as an oddball twist in the otherwise wrenching saga of the BP oil spill when Kevin Costner stepped forward to promote a device he said could work wonders in containing the spill's damage. But as Henry Fountain explains in the New York Times, the gadget in question — an oil-separating centrifuge — marks a major breakthrough in spill cleanup technology. And BP, after trial runs with the device, is ordering 32 more of the Costner-endorsed centrifuges to aid the Gulf cleanup.
The "Waterworld" actor has invested some $20 million and spent the past 15 years in developing the centrifuges. He helped found a manufacturing company, Ocean Therapy Solutions, to advance his brother's research in spill cleanup technology. In testimony before Congress this month, Costner walked through the device's operation—explaining how it spins oil-contaminated water at a rapid speed, so as to separate out the oil and capture it in a containment tank:
Suttles said the additional machines will be used to build four new deep-water systems: on two barges and two 280-foot supply boats.
"We tested it in some of the toughest environments we could find, and actually what it's done — it's quite robust," Suttles said. "This is real technology with real science behind it, and it's passed all of those tests." He added that Costner's device has proved effective at processing 128,000 barrels of water a day, which "can make a real difference to our spill response efforts."
In his congressional testimony, Costner recounted his struggle to effectively market the centrifuge. He explained that although the machines are quite effective, they can still leave trace amounts of oil in the treated water that exceeds current environmental regulations. Because of that regulatory hurdle, he said, he had great difficulty getting oil industry giants interested without first having the approval of the federal government.
[Before 'Waterworld': See Kevin Costner in the '90s]
It's true, as Fountain notes in the Times, that innovation on spill technology has been hobbled in part by the reach of federal regulation — though Fountain also notes that oil companies have elected to devote comparatively little money for researching cleanup devices in the intensely competitive industry.
Costner said that after the device was patented in 1993, he sought to overcome oil-company jitters by offering to allow U.S. oil concerns to use it on a trial basis. He'd extended the same offer to the Japanese government in 1997, he said, but got no takers there either.
— Brett Michael Dykes is a national affairs writer for Yahoo! News.