It’s like a disaster movie, featuring the greedy executives who let it happen, panicking politicians, and a champion. In the movie version of Deepwater Horizon, the champion might be played by, say, Kevin Costner, a veteran of the everyman hero role.
However, it seems as though the barrier between the cinematic and real has been breached. The real Kevin Costner has stepped off the silver screen to become an unlikely hero of the Deepwater Horizon crisis in the Gulf of Mexico.
Celebrity philanthropy is certainly nothing new, but Costner’s efforts go beyond bringing publicity and funds to the cause. In his role as the owner of Ocean Therapy Solutions (OTS), based in downtown Santa Barbara, Costner and his business partners Patrick N. Smith and John Houghtaling II, with help from UCLA engineering professor and researcher Eric M.V. Hoek, have provided cutting edge oil-treatment technology for the cleanup efforts. They developed a centrifuge capable of separating oil from water with what they claim is unprecedented efficiency, and it is quickly becoming one of the main tools in the Gulf cleanup effort. According to Smith, British Petroleum bought 32 of the machines in June, and the federal government is providing assistance to Gulf Coast communities that will enable them to buy their own centrifuges.
“This is not a Hollywood ending for me,” Costner recently told the U.S. Senate. “The path to arrive at this moment was steep and formidable. That is why I’ve been called at this moment to testify before this committee to explain why 21st-century technology has sat idly on the shelf for 10 years, when it could have been deployed as a first, most efficient responder to mitigate the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe.”
Although OTS was only conceived immediately following the oil spill, Costner’s involvement with developing this technology has spanned nearly two decades. According to Smith, Costner’s inspiration for developing oil-cleanup technology harkened back to his experience growing up in Ventura County and realizing how defenseless the coast was against oil rig spills.
In 1993, he purchased a patent from the Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory for a centrifuge to separate oil and water, and formed Costner Industries. He hired researchers, sunk $20 million of his own money into the company, and for 15 years strived to garner interest from oil companies. However, according to Smith, not only were the oil companies disinterested in the cleanup technology, but government agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Coast Guard often blocked the technology from being tested because of concerns over water purity. The problem, Smith said, was that these agencies required the water being put back in after the centrifuge process to have the oil content of no more than 15 parts per million, a virtually untraceable level.
However, as Hoek continued research on the machine, he improved the water purity to 99.9 percent. This, as Smith put it, “fortuitous” development occurred only a week before the spill. “Kevin had never given up,” Smith said, “and with my help, we were methodically going through the process of how to solve the EPA and the Coast Guard’s problem about being as pure as we could, so the whole thing was a coincidence of things just coming together.” Talk about a Hollywood ending!
Smith said OTS has developed several applications for the centrifuge, allowing for cleanup not just in deep ocean, but also in waters as shallow as three feet. In addition, they are currently in the midst of getting approval for a “plume hunter.” The machine would make use of Norwegian technology that Smith compared to an “ultrasound” capable of seeking out the toxic plumes.
Although the spill was capped by BP as of July 15, there is still a tremendous amount of damage control to be done, both environmentally and economically. Protecting and preserving the environment is OTS’ primary focus, though Smith said the company also regards the continuation of offshore drilling as a necessity. “There’s going to be drilling offshore,” Smith said. “There’s too many assets, and we’re not against drilling. We’re not against oil exploration, because we need it for independence. We need to keep doing what we’re doing. “
However, Smith also said changes are needed in offshore drilling policies. First of all, he said, offshore rigs must meet certain, more stringent criteria before being allowed to operate. Also, both the government and oil industry should create thoroughly transparent processes for dealing with potential crises like the Deepwater Horizon spill. “I think there’s going to be a new age of responsibility,” Smith said, “and if you meet that criteria you should be able to work.”
At three months old, OTS is now at the forefront of the industry for environmental technology, and its success is growing. “It’s going up and up. They are taking notice,” Smith said. “We’re getting requests from around the globe. It’s really interesting that people are becoming more aware that this is a true first line of defense, and that’s where it should be.”
“For me, advancing the technology for oil spill cleanup was a dream, not a business. It wasn’t about improving my margins,” Costner said in his statement to the Senate. “It was about doing something more.”