5 Improvements in Offshore Oil Drilling

Improved Technology for Tracking and Controlling Released Oil

The massiveness of the Deepwater Horizon spill forced the oil industry to try just about every conceivable method for removing oil from the Gulf and its shoreline: using ships to skim oil from the surface, controlled burning of the oil slick in open water and the use of chemical dispersants to break up the massive cloud of oil underwater.

While there's been controversy about the effectiveness of that effort, it provided experience and knowledge that will be invaluable in the event of another such accident.

For example, oil industry officials have learned how to combine information from a variety of sources -- satellite and aerial photography, thermal imaging, radar and infrared sensing, among others -- to detect the size of oil plumes and track their movement, which is essential to choosing the right method of cleaning up the mess. They've also built a new network of 26 radio towers outfitted with equipment for communicating with ships and planes, which will enable them to more easily coordinate response efforts to a future spill. In addition, the industry has beefed up its skimming capabilities, adding four modified barges known as "Big Gulp" skimmers, and setting up a system that can marshal nearly 6,000 local commercial fishing vessels to join in skimming operations. However, some of the other methods used to deal with the April 2010 spill remain controversial. While setting fire to oil removed as much or more of the spill as skimming, officials remain concerned about health risks from the resulting air pollution. The effectiveness of the approximately 2.5 million gallons of chemical dispersants used in the Gulf remains unclear, and there are nagging questions about the possible long-term health and environmental effects of the chemicals.

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