New system designed to clean up oil spills faster

February 25, 2011 5:02:30 PM PST
Today in Houston, the two men putting the brakes on oil industry expansion in the Gulf got a close-up look at their one last hurdle. The interior secretary and the chief oil regulator came to see two systems designed to clean up a spill faster and more effectively than last summer's efforts. Before they saw the hardware, In Focus Reporter Ted Oberg did. He flew out to the Helix Producer 1 in the Gulf of Mexico, 93 miles off the coast of Louisiana.

On Friday afternoon, the Helix is bringing up thousands of barrels of oil from a well deep below the decks. But if one of thousands of wells elsewhere in the Gulf started spilling crude into the water, Helix says this ship could race to rescue.

"We are better prepared today. We can quickly respond to an incident of that magnitude in a lot shorter time period and a lot safer environment," said Tony Owen of the Helix Producer 1.

It's not a wild theory. Helix proved it could be done last summer when the BP well blew out. Back then, it took four months of industry trial and error to figure out a way to contain the spill and pump oil to the surface. This ship working with another Helix vessel sucked oil from the broken well to the surface and then to a tanker until the well could be shut in.

Almost one year later, the industry's packaged what it learned then and promises a faster response now.

"Obviously we weren't quite where we needed to be in April. But based on the that, we've built these systems. This is one of the systems -- we're ready now," said Cameron Wallace of Helix Energy Solutions.

The system worked last summer and the company says it will work again this summer if needed. But until the federal government believes that, the oil industry in the Gulf of Mexico can't expand at all.

This afternoon, one day after we first saw the Helix system, the interior secretary and the feds' chief oil regulator came to see it themselves.

"These containment systems are a work in progress. Both systems currently have limitations on water depth and barrel per day containment capabilities," said Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar.

That's not exactly the strong endorsement the industry had hoped for and likely means more work needs to be done before the federal government will issue new permits.

"We're ready to get back to work. It's up to them now," said Wallace.

There are thousands of Gulf Coast oil workers waiting on their answer.

The other system inspected today was designed by a consortium of big oil companies. It is not finished, but will work similarly, and was unveiled at an oil conference earlier this month.