Kevin Costner

Oil field of dreams

Hollywood star Kevin Costner has invested over $20m developing a technology that can help clean up oil spills. E&T talks to the actor about his struggle to gain the ear of the industry.

Kevin Costner is best known for his appearances on the silver screen in movie classics such as ‘Dances With Wolves', ‘JFK', ‘Waterworld' and ‘Tin Cup'. But the two-times Academy Award winner is more than a movie star, he is a businessman, and it would appear a businessman with a conscience. He is co-founder of Blue Planet Solutions, a company that has developed an innovative technique for cleaning oil spills. 

The Costner that appeared at the recent ONS Conference in Stavanger was not the suave and cool Hollywood actor that graces the TV screens, but a man whose entire demeanour conveyed the desperation of a man whose ideals are being thwarted by the intransigence and conservatism of an industry under siege. His eyes, sunken and dark rimmed, betray the pain of the suffering that he has witnessed on his recent forays to the Gulf of Mexico and his slumped shoulders the resignation of one who knows that he is fighting a lost cause.

So what is Costner doing investing millions in an oil clean-up company? "Before I answer that, I would like to ask you all to think about The Gulf of Mexico and what has happened there," he says. "The images you have been seeing on your televisions the past four months. Men and women standing on the beaches in rubber boots, straw and pitch forks, animals frightened, dazed, covered in oil and anchored fishing boats, empty beaches.

"The horrible face of uncertainty that shows on a strong man's face when he sees his economic way of life destroyed. The loss of pride that comes from telling your wife that you can no longer provide. The confusion that comes from telling your children that they might have to move away from the only life they have ever known. That everything you have ever built will be taken away.

"I ask you to think about the Gulf of Mexico because our own children, mine and yours are seeing these images for the very first time. Their shock is obvious. How could this happen? And why can't we stop it? We cringe as adults because we know this isn't new, we know this isn't the first time. We cringe because we have been living and seeing these same images for the better part of our own lives… the last six decades."

Epic disaster

Costner explains that the Deepwater Horizon incident has marked another generation. It has become another moment in American history. A moment when collectively a nation stops and lives the same nightmare. He likens it to the assassination of President Kennedy, 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. "Now the whole world has stopped again to watch as the United States of America fumbles its way through the biggest environmental disaster in history.

"Should we point the finger, or should we take a moment as a world community, knowing that this could have happened anywhere to anyone, and use it as a glimpse into our future. Could it be for all the progress we have made in the last century, we will be known for our negligence? Our epic disregard for an already fragile Earth?"

It should be clear by now that any industry that operates year-round on the high seas tapping the Earth's core in depths of water that boggles the mind is going to experience spills on a daily basis, on a weekly basis. It is a fact of operational life, whether we want to acknowledge it or not. When it happens, a measurement will be given. It will most often be described as large or small. On the worst occasions like the Exxon Valdez, it will be called a disaster. "So what do we call what happened in the Gulf? I would suggest that there is not a word big enough or ugly enough to describe what has happened there. And that is why I got involved 17 years ago," Costner adds.

"In 1993, I took my pile and I acquired a centrifuge technology out of the United States Department of Energy. It stood about 6in tall at the time and I believed that if we could scale it up we would be able to separate oil and water at high speeds and that we would then be able to take on the oil spills that we were beginning to see all too often in my country and around the world.

"With all this in mind I brought together 20 scientists and engineers and its inventor David Meikrantz and put them under one roof. My directions were simple. If the Exxon Valdez happened again, how long would it take for us to clean it up?

"I challenged them and I paid them. And two years later we had our first machine. It stood about 8ft-tall and weighed about 4,500lb. It would handle 200 gallons per minute, with a single machine having the ability to separate 210,000 gallons per day with both oil and water outputs of 99.9 per cent purity even under the harshest of conditions.

"The dream had moved from research and development to a commercially viable product now ready to be deployed anywhere in the world. This was done without the help of outside investors or government grants. The price tag would be over $20m and I would pay it."

Dream invention

For the 55-year-old, advancing the technology for oil spill clean-up was a dream, not a business. "It wasn't about improving my margins," he says. "I wasn't even trying to stay in the black! We were trying to be about something. Did I expect the oil industry to open its arms when I presented an oil/water separator, a solution to their single greatest liability? Yes.

Did I expect the thoughtful leaders in my country and abroad to recognise the importance of protection where we are the most vulnerable? Yes, I really did."

But in that hope he was to be sadly disappointed. All Costner's enthusiasm for what the machine could do was met with apathy; a refusal to reject the status quo. The list of government agencies and foreign and domestic oil companies who saw the technology more than a decade ago reads like a who's who of those who needed it, those who should have been looking for it, and, more to the point, those who should have been developing it themselves.

So what was the problem? Was there something else like it? "For more than a dozen years, my machine sat quietly in a modest Nevada facility," he adds. "An industry expert later told me I had come up with a solution for a problem that didn't exist. I thought what in the hell had I been smoking, stupid Kevin.

"So when the crisis in the Gulf hit, I was both sad and interested. I was interested to see how we would respond. I was curious to see how far the industry had progressed. I guess you could say I was eager to see the new tricks that must have been up the industry's sleeves.

"But the pattern was still there. Their blue print for action had not changed and their response wasn't really a response at all. Predictably, the MSRC moved to get the oil off of the surface with a toxic dispersant, and quickly off the front pages of newspapers. The oil sank and predictably broke up, insuring that most of it would never see the light of day as it dropped and spread into the Gulf's valuable eco system.

"The rationale was simple and easy to follow. Explain to a frightened public that if the oil stays on top of the ocean's surface it will travel quicker and reach land quicker than if it sank. It was the perfect answer for an industry and government that were both scrambling now. The sad part was a scared population and a fragile eco-system that deserved better. Characterising that strategy would be something close to ‘sweeping the problem under the carpet'."

At Blue Planet they believe that a first response should not include dispersants. It is well known that dispersants do nothing to reduce the toxicity of spilled oil. The same can be said for burning, which does not remove oil from the environment; rather it transforms it into a more mobile form of air pollution. "There is no longer the need or excuse to pollute the ocean any further," Costner says. "The efficiency with which our machine works coupled with the latest boom and skimmer technology is to the point where we can not only recover the asset but restore it to a purity that gives it a market value."

Further information

Technical videos detailing the process from Ocean Therapy Solutions

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