David Prior didn’t know much about oil spills.
That wasn’t his area of expertise as a contractor assisting graduate students in the petroleum engineering program. He was at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, a region with a long maritime tradition and a comparatively brief history of offshore petroleum exploration and production.
He would help the students build equipment necessary for their projects, attracting the attention of the head of the department by developing a barge made of recycled plastic. His interest in oil spills only began when one of his colleagues, a professor in the program, brought up an interesting new idea for recovering oil from spills that occur on the water.
“And I thought, ‘Well, that’s a great idea. And cleaning up oil spills is important.’ So, then I decided to develop the technology,” said Prior, now CEO of Extreme Spill Technology (EST). The company announced on Oct.1 that their oil spill recovery vessel is ready for use by the Canadian Coast Guard after the successful completion of the tests that concluded at the Ohmsett testing facilities in New Jersey on September 14.
The vessel arrived in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island the day of the announcement.
“That was about seven years ago,” added Prior, continuing to describe the origin of the project.
As Prior began to research oil spill recovery practices during those early days, he realized that the record wasn’t very encouraging with respect to spills that had happened on the ocean.
“The equipment seemed to work fine inside a … harbour, which is where the vast number of oil spills happen,” he explained.
“But whenever there was an oil spill on the ocean, that equipment wasn’t working. And the idea that I was developing seemed to have real potential in the area that wasn’t being serviced properly. And that’s out on the ocean where it’s always rough, unless you have a lucky day.
“And also in ice,” he added. “Nothing was able to work in ice. And our technology showed potential for working in heavy ice.”
The test results exceeded expectations.
“In calm conditions, at a good rate of speed – maybe two or three times the normal rate of speed – it was collecting 93 per cent [of the oil],” said Prior.
That is quite impressive considering that all the efforts following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico during the summer of 2010 only resulted in the recovery of three per cent of that oil.
“If BP [British Petroleum] had had our technology in the Gulf of Mexico – and even if they only had three or four vessels equipped with it – other than the tragedy of losing eleven men and losing an oil rig, there would have been probably no other losses,” said Prior. “All of that oil would have been picked up out on the open ocean. And it wouldn’t have gone ashore.
“They only got three per cent of the oil,” he continued. “And most of that oil, I’m sure, they picked up after it hit the beach. So, they picked up virtually none of the oil on the ocean, where it hadn’t caused any damage.
“It only really became a catastrophe when it started to hit the shore. And when they used a dispersant to send it straight onto the breeding grounds, of course. And now the fisheries are collapsing because of the dispersant use.”
Tests of the EST vessel also resulted in 75 per cent oil recovery in moderate waves.
“In big waves, it didn’t do so well, but that’s because we didn’t have our system set up with all the features that it should have on the ocean,” said Prior.
“Like any new system, we need to refine it a little bit,” he added. “But, fundamentally, it’s good. It works.”
Exactly how it works is actually as simple as a trick that a middle school science teacher might show his students.
“If you have a bucket of water and a glass, and you submerge the glass and turn it upside down, and lift it out of the water, the water stays in the glass until the glass comes right clear of the water,” said Prior.
“What we do,” he continued, “is we create an upside down glass and we leave the opening of the glass just under the surface. And a boat carries the glass into the oil spill. And the oil spill goes into the boat. And it comes to the opening of the glass, which is full of water, and it floats up to the top of the water column. And it’s trapped because it can’t go down. So, then you just pump it out the top.
“The advantage of that system is there’s no moving parts.”
The release of this technology comes at an interesting time considering all the discussion of new pipelines, such as Enbridge’s Northern Gateway and Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain Expansion (TMX), to ship oil sands bitumen to the Pacific Coast for export to foreign markets and the accompanying increase in tanker traffic that will occur.
However, that doesn’t mean that the EST oil skimmer will necessarily be integrated into any of those plans.
“Marine safety experts with the Northern Gateway project continue to monitor all advancements in technology and equipment that would be suitable for use on our proposed project,” said Enbridge spokesperson Ivan Giesbrecht.
Enbridge may be examining the technology, but is not about to commit to utilizing the vessel, particularly when they already have other oil spill prevention and response initiatives in the works.
“The Northern Gateway Project would add emergency response equipment that does not now exist on the north coast of British Columbia,” Giesbrecht continued. “This plan exceeds current government regulations and significantly improves emergency response time.
“Northern Gateway’s plan that would enhance safety for all vessel traffic was recently independently verified,” he added. “The report prepared by the TERMPOL committee, led by Transport Canada and including input from Environment Canada, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, the Canadian Coast Guard and the Pacific Pilotage Authority Canada was filed with the National Energy Board (NEB) as part of the Joint Review Panel (JRP) process.
“The TERMPOL study found ‘no regulatory or safety concerns and no serious safety issues’ related to Northern Gateway,’ and, in fact, acknowledges that Northern Gateway’s plans enhance the existing regulatory regime.”
Prior suggests that use of the EST vessel is necessitated by the inherent risks associated with a large amount of tanker traffic in an area such as the Douglas Channel, where oil transported by Northern Gateway would finds its way onto ships bound for California and Asia, particularly considering the bad weather that can occur in that region.
“Even with our technology, I think Gateway’s too risky,” said Prior. “Shipping out of Vancouver is a little better weather-wise. But without our technology, you could have a catastrophe just on a windy day. Because it doesn’t take much wind to stop all the existing equipment. And even if you have nice weather like the Gulf of Mexico in July, you still only get just a fraction of a per cent on the oil.”
Regardless, Prior is encouraged by the fact that the Canadian Coast Guard is so readily adopting the technology.
“The Canadian Coast Guard has been supportive from the very beginning,” said Prior.
“They’re aware that they really need a new tool in their toolbox for cleaning up oil spills in the ocean,” he added, noting that he is hopeful that other organizations responsible for oil spill response and recovery start to use the equipment as well.
“It’s like a fire truck,” said Prior. “It’s got to be in place before the fire. You can’t start trying to order one of these boats after the spill happens. And it’s also got to be like a fire truck in the fact that every minute counts. And right now the oil spill protocols are that if you show up in 72 hours, you’re on time. Well, 72 hours is way, way too late. The oil’s gone. It’s on the coast already.
“These big oil tankers really need to be escorted by an oil spill skimmer vessel like ours that can actually work out where the ships are,” he continued.
Prior explained that the trouble convincing companies to adopt new technologies for oil spill response and recovery is the fact that it is difficult to convince them to purchase expensive equipment they may never actually use.
He believes the EST oil skimmer is a different story.
“It’s a workboat, which makes it more likely to be bought,” said Prior.
He noted that here is also an economic case in terms of being able to sell the recovered oil.
“If you can get the oil fresh, you’re going to pick up 99 per cent pure oil,” Prior explained. “But, again, it’s that fire truck thing. You’ve got to be able to get to it before it becomes mixed with water.
“BP would have saved $400 million worth of oil, which was wasted because they couldn’t get it fast enough,” he added.
The chemical dispersants also ruin the quality of the oil, as well as the fisheries contaminated by those chemicals, according to Prior.
That could certainly be changing with the EST oil skimmer.
The Canadian Coast Guard is already onboard and the major Chinese oil companies are seriously exploring the possibility of taking the technology to Asia.
“We did a few trials on the ocean in China with oil,” said Prior, adding that the result has been interest from the Chinese Coast Guard in acquiring 25-metre vessels for oil spill response and recovery.
“China is really leading the way in using the technology,” he said.
It is a sign that the project has finally overcome the greatest obstacle encountered throughout its history.
“It was seven years,” said Prior. “And I say it was seven months of work and the rest of time was scrambling for money. And that was the big challenge.
“Technically,” he continued, “it wasn’t that big a challenge, because we live in a modern, industrialized world, and there’s engineers everywhere, and there’s the internet for referencing. And it’s really just a case of showing up for work and doing the work. But trying to raise the money, you might as well be back in the dark ages. It was terrible.”
Much of the early support was provided by poor investors who lost a lot of money in the process.
“They’re the ones that actually stepped up to the plate and got things rolling,” said Prior.
“After a couple of years,” he continued, “a very good organization stepped up called the Community Business Development Corporation (CBDC).
“Their goal, is to develop economic activity outside the main cities across Canada. And they stepped up with a significant amount of money. And they have been really good. They’ve almost been like an investor. A bank would have pulled the rug out from under us long ago, but they stuck with us.”
The CBDC continued with their support even though their first contribution came just before the recession hit in 2008.
“Venture capitalists wouldn’t touch it with a ten foot pole,” said Prior.
“It’s pretty strange the way things work sometimes.”