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Reality Lags Behind BP's Promises About Oil Skimmers

BP has touted skimmers as a primary strategy for fighting the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, but its claims about their potential appears overblown.

As if we needed another reminder of the ways in which the sophistication of oil spill cleanup technology has lagged behind that of drilling technology, The Washington Post makes the case that BP has over-promised and under-delivered when it comes to skimming crude off the surface of the Gulf of Mexico.

Ever since Adm. Thad Allen, the national incident commander, announced in early June that the oil spill had changed from a single slick to “a massive collection of smaller patches of oil,” skimmers have been pushed front and center in the strategy to fight the spill, and the lack of them has been an issue for lawmakers and a favorite subject of the media.

But according to the Post, the skimmers simply may not work as well as promised; in total, BP has “skimmed or burned about 60 percent of the amount it promised regulators it could remove in a single day.” The company promised in a March report -- before the disaster -- that it could skim and remove 491,721 barrels of oil in a day. Two days after the explosion, the company stated on its website that it could skim more than 171,000 barrels per day, “with more available if needed.”

In reality, skimming seems to have recovered far less than that. Here’s the Post:

As of Monday, with about 2 million barrels released into the gulf, the skimming operations that were touted as key to preventing environmental disaster have averaged less than 900 barrels a day.

Skimming has captured only 67,143 barrels, and BP has relied on burning to remove 238,095 barrels. Most of the oil recovered -- about 632,410 barrels -- was captured directly at the site of the leaking well.

When I tried to verify these numbers, neither Unified Command nor BP had figures for how much oil alone has been skimmed. Bryan Ferguson, a spokesman for BP, told me that to date, 681,000 barrels of oil-water mixture have been skimmed, and that the company doesn’t have a basis for “calculating what percentage of that is oil.”

The Post seems to have used in its calculation a statistic that we also saw cited by Newsweek:  a breakdown of 90 percent water, 10 percent oil.

Another BP spokesman told me that the oil-to-water proportion could vary, which is likely why the company doesn’t have a number out for the amount of oil skimmed.

When I pointed out that the oil from skimming operations is part of what’s processed and separated -- oil from water — in order for BP to donate the proceeds to wildlife, the spokesman told me, “I think its fair to say that a majority of proceeds will come through oil collected through containment systems, rather than oil being skimmed.”

On the same subject, Reuters pointed out that if another spill were to happen here, most skimming equipment would not be available to fight it, because all the major oil companies rely “largely on the same armada of skimmers.” According to Reuters, this may help bolster the Interior Department’s argument for a new drilling moratorium. 

Others have also reported that weather has severely hampered skimming operations. Reported The Associated Press:

Oil is still on the move, but the fleet of skimmers tapped to clean the worst-hit areas of the Gulf of Mexico is not. A string of storms has made the water too choppy for the boats to operate for more than a week off Florida, Alabama and Mississippi, even though the gusher continues.

According to the AP, skimming—which was held up last week by Hurricane Alex—remains on hold due to “smaller storms that could last well into this week.” (In the meantime, tarballs were discovered in Texas over the weekend.) Much ado has also been made over a giant super-skimmer--a tanker from Taiwan that has been turned into a skimmer--but after testing over the weekend, it has not yet been deployed.

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