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Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

Oil Companies Must Invest In Alternative, Safer Fuel Sources

Cara Palmer |
July 21, 2011 | 2:44 p.m. PDT

Staff Columnist

(dsb nola, Creative Commons)
(dsb nola, Creative Commons)
There have been at least 120 oil spills around the world from 1967 to 2004. There were 13 oil spills in 2010 alone, including the infamous Gulf Oil spill, or BP oil spill, in April 2010. Oil still continues to wash ashore over a year later. As of a July 9 field inspection, "about 491 miles (790 kilometers) of coastline in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida were contaminated by BP oil" and "a total of 1,074 miles has been oiled since the spill began," according to Tim Zink, a spokesman for the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration. About 5 million barrels were spilled into the gulf from this spill alone.

So far this year there have already been four major oil spills, and a few more minor ones. BP, after coming under intense scrutiny as a result of the Gulf Oil spill, was yet again responsible for another spill, just a few days ago. The Week reports:

"On Saturday, an 8-inch pipeline in BP’s Lisburne oil field…was being pressure-tested when the pipe burst, releasing crude oil, methanol, and water across a gravel pad and into a small pond…Somewhere between 2,100 and 4,200 gallons of pollutants were released into the environment in Alaska.” Had BP not neglected regular maintenance of their pipelines to reduce operating costs, the company might have realized that “148 sections of BP pipeline in Alaska…were so corroded that they were in imminent danger of rupture."

Less than a month ago, Exxon Mobil was responsible for an oil spill in the Yellowstone River of Montana, which, according to Richard Opper, the director of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, resulted in 1,176 barrels of crude oil spilled. The company does not yet know the cause of the spill. However, the company had sufficient warning to prevent it. Huffington Post notes that "Exxon Mobil had recently examined the Montana pipeline prior to its July 1 failure in response to local officials’ concerns that the river bank was eroding amid violent river flows brought on by a record winter snowpack." Huffington Post adds that another company "with an adjacent natural gas line shut down the line over floodwater concerns." Exxon Mobil did not. 

Overshadowed by this larger spill, another oil mishap this month, this time involving FX Drilling Co. and an oil field at the edge of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, was never reported to authorities. The Environmental Protection Agency discovered the spill only after a landowner complained to the tribe. The spill is "estimated to be between 420 and 840 gallons," according to the Associated Press.

The oil and pipeline industry is largely self-regulated. After several major spills recently occurred over a relatively short time span, "regulators scramble to gauge what other lines might be at risk, [and] lawmakers from both parties are raising alarms that another spill could be imminent unless the government steps up oversight of the largely self-regulated pipeline industry," states the Huffington Post. Legislators are beginning to take action in the interest of preventing future spills. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) has proposed and is now attempting to pass a pipeline safety bill in the Senate.

However, in a time when incredibly damaging oil spills are happening at higher rates and oil companies show no interest in discontinuing harmful offshore drilling practices and investing in safer alternative fuels, not only does an effective preventative strategy, involving strict regulations, need to be implemented, but an effective cleanup solution is also required. Oil spills will continue to happen, and the environment will continue to be damaged by the spilled oil, unless a safe, quick method of cleanup is implemented.

The current methods of cleanup are, at best, archaic. They include skimming and vacuuming, which are far from guaranteed to clean 100% of the spilled oil out of the water; leaving the oil alone and hoping it will evaporate; and using biological agents to foster the growth of microorganisms that break down the oil into natural components. These methods take more time than it takes for the environment to be adversely affected by the presence of the oil.

One possible alternative cleanup method with great potential is a material called aerogel.

Aerogel is the lightest solid material in the world – it is composed of up to 99.98% air. It can absorb "up to four thousand times its own weight in atmospheric and oceanic pollutants." Scientists have created specific aerogels to be used as water purifiers, to extract harmful contaminants from industrial waste. In other words, aerogel can be manufactured to clean up oil spills. Not only that, but, according to the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, "research has found that platinum-based aerogel can speed up the production of hydrogen for use as fuel… If implemented successfully, this technology would be able to provide cheaper alternative fuels to combat the high cost and limited supply of oil."

Also important to note, aerogel is environmentally safe. During the production of aerogel, no hazardous wastes are produced. Its disposal is natural – in the environment it is crushed into a powder identical to sand. Aerogels are both non-toxic and non-flammable.

The only hindrance to producing aerogels for commercial use is soon to be nonexistent. The cost of manufacturing the material was a major obstacle in possible commercial use of the substance, but a new report indicates that the price of aerogel will drop by 90%.

Neon Tommy reports:

"Thanks to Swedish company Svenska Aerogel, a breakthrough process has been developed by which large batches of the substance can be produced at ambient temperatures and standard pressures. This results in a significant drop in price, as the new method does not require energy-intensive application of tremendous heat and pressure."

The company is now raising funds to begin commercial production of aerogel starting as early as next year.

If oil companies would only invest in this substance, which, due to the drop in price of the manufacturing cost and the record profits oil companies are now sporting, should be very possible, the efficient and effective cleanup of oil spills that should not have happened in the first place would be made possible. As long as companies insist on using oil as a primary source of energy, rather than moving away from dependence on oil to investing in alternative fuel sources, the least they can do is to demonstrate that they are prepared to take responsibility for cleaning up their environmentally harmful messes.

To read more about the damaging effects of oil on wildlife, plantlife, and natural habitats, click here.

To read more about aerogel, click here.


Reach Staff Columnist Cara Palmer here or follow her on Twitter.



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