Two decades apart, two separate major oil spills and two environmental nightmares. An ugly pattern has emerged and it seems there is no sign of the industry changing its oil recovery methods to prevent a future leak turning into a third man-made disaster.

In March 1989, the Exxon Valdez tanker, bound for California, struck the Alaskan Bligh Reef and spilled 260,000 to 750,000 barrels of crude oil into the ocean, eventually covering 2,100 km of coastline.

Last year, 2010, saw an even larger marine disaster, known as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, occur in the Gulf of Mexico, releasing at least 4.9 million barrels of BP‘s oil until it was capped 87 days later.

At the time, BP and the US Government said it had ‘burned’, ‘dispersed’ and ‘dissolved’ the spilled oil, but, more than a year after the leak, many scientists believe much of the black stuff remains, as clusters of dolphins continue to die around the area and much of the coastline is still heavily or moderately oiled.

At least with the BP spill – thanks to the internet – public and private organisations were woken up to painfully slow rate at which oil was being recovered from the ocean and began to question the offshore industry’s spill response techniques.

In a frank interview, Extreme Spill Technology CEO David Prior explains how needless oil disasters can be avoided.

Sarah Blackman: In your view, spill recovery technology has remained stagnant since its launch 30-40 years ago. What is the reason for this?

"If our technology had been available at the time of the BP spill, the oil would have never have got past the well site."

David Prior: There are a couple of things that prevented change from happening. One is that nobody was complaining.

Back in 1989, when the Exxon Valdez spill occurred, people believed in the authorities, in that they would give it their ‘best shot’ to clean up the oil.

It wasn’t until the internet came along and people saw, in real time, contractors shuffling about with a broom on the beach that people realised that ‘giving it their best shot’ was pretty meaningless.

In the BP spill I learned that the contractors, who are charged for cleaning up the spill, get paid by the hour and not by the amount of oil they clean up, so the longer the job goes on, the richer they get.

If our technology had been available at the time of the BP spill, they wouldn’t have made a dime because the oil would have never have got past the well site.

So, our technology puts them out of business and when you are talking about $100 million a day recovering oil, there’s a lot of resistance to change.

SB: Is this situation likely to change as the oil industry and governments realise how much money is being wasted on contractors?

DP: At the end of the BP spill, the industry published a report and they congratulated themselves on following the plan and doing a pretty good job. They got 3% of the oil, but the important thing was that they did what they were told. So, I don’t think things will change.

The company that I formed has a number of local shareholders in Alabama and one of them was a guy named Tommy Marr Junior, who put a huge amount of effort into introducing EST technology into the Gulf of Mexico.

His father owns one of the biggest emergency response and clean up companies in the world, DRC, and I have a feeling daddy had something to say because he was making $1 million a week cleaning up the beaches in the BP oil spill and had no operations related to cleaning up the oil at the well site.

Meanwhile, his son was developing technology that would put an end to all this. Since then, there has been absolutely no change.

SB: Are oil contractors purposely working at a slow pace to recover oil or is it the equipment that is failing them?

DP: Well, the equipment is useless, but the resistance to new equipment is very strong. The only change which has come about is the billion-dollar well capping device that has been developed.

This is a great idea, but it takes seven to ten days to install, meanwhile a huge amount of oil will be on the loose that they [the oil industry] haven’t a clue how to clean up.

SB: How does your technology break the mould by recovering oil quickly and effectively?

DP: If you have a bucket of water and a glass, submerge the glass and let it fill up with water and then turn it upside down, the water stays inside the glass until the glass breaks the surface of the water.

"Our technology is not a brand new idea. There is another device that has been around for 40 years and uses the same principal."

In our case, we built a large ‘glass’ tower that varies in size, depending on the size of the boat.

The opening is just below the surface of the ocean and we use a vacuum pump to suck out all the air that’s inside this tower and when we do, the fluid goes up to the ceiling and we hold it there so it stays in place.

Oil is always trying to reach the surface, so when it reaches the underwater opening of the tower it shoots up to the ceiling and once it’s up there, it can’t get down, even when operating in rough seas.

As the tower fills up with oil, the oil pump is turned on to take the oil out of the top of the tower. As the oil comes out of the top, the water fills back up again.

SB: How long does this oil recovery process take?

DP: It depends how thick the oil is that you’re encountering because that determines how quickly the towers fill up. It also depends on how powerful the pump is as to how quickly you can empty the tower. So speed is not really relevant. What does matter is that we recover all of the oil.

We have a system whereby a barge, roughly nine to ten metres-wide and 12 to 15 metres long, holds three or four of our tower systems.

Oil rig supply vessels could carry two of these on their deck, at fairly high speed, to the site of the leak. Within 12 hours, they could be on the scene, cleaning up a patch 30 metres-wide at a rate of two metres a second.

SB: How do your oil recovery methods compare to in-situ burning methods?

DP: In-situ burning can only be used if conditions are extremely calm and this system is really slow, it pollutes the environment and it wastes the oil. When we pick up oil, we are taking 99.9% pure oil back to shore.

Our technology is not a brand new idea. There is another device that has been around for 40 years and uses the same principal, but what its developers have done is taken a pipe and the opening of this pipe is held about one meter below the surface.

A conveyor belt then pulls the oil down to the opening so it floats up inside the pipe. This system, however, has real limitations, because the waves disrupt the action of the conveyor belt. Of course, it won’t work in the Arctic either because the ice would rip the conveyor belt off.

SB: Does it worry you that companies may not invest in your products because the oil industry is so reluctant to change?

DP: No. What we have had to do is undermine the credibility of the existing customers and bring in new customers, such as shareholders of the oil companies who end up paying for all this folly which is available. We show them that they don’t have to waste $40 billion on technology.

Also, environmentalists are becoming very powerful and they are waking up to the fact that this whole thing is a sham, so they will put pressure on the various people to buy this equipment. This is actually starting to happen now.

SB: How close are you to selling a commercial model of your oil recovery system?

"Statoil is very excited about EST, which is great because they have a reputation for being pioneers of new technology."

DP: We are waiting for a purchase order from the Canadian Government who are buying our first commercial model for the Canadian Coast Guard.

That will be built this Winter. We got that contract about ten months ago. The Chinese Government, however, has moved 20 times faster. They saw the technology three weeks ago and now want to see 50 of our 6m and 12m skimmers in Eastern China alone.

Also, our representative in Norway is a very senior sales guy with Uson Marines and he had a meeting with Statoil recently.

Statoil is very excited about EST, which is great because they have a reputation for being pioneers of new technology.