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Oil Companies, Hollywood, former U.S. Government, and Research Organizations Discuss Drills and Spills at the Aspen Institute

By Jon T. Brock, President Desert Sky Group, LLC

August 13, 2010


Is it just me or do the organizations represented on this panel held at the Aspen Institute’s Environment Forum in the last week of July strike you as quite interesting?  Perusing the agenda for which sessions to attend, this one certainly caught my eye as an after lunch must-attend plenary session.  Held on the grounds of the Aspen Institute in beautiful Aspen, Colorado and sponsored by National Geographic, Chevrolet, Duke Energy, and Shell, I certainly had pre-conceived ideas of where this panel was heading.

Moderated by Joel Achenbach, staff writer for the Washington Post, and sub-titled The Rhetoric and Reality of Offshore Oil Resources, Shell began this lively debate by giving its perspective of off-shore drilling safety.  Elizabeth Cheney, vice president of safety, environment and sustainable development for Shell Upstream Americas stated that Shell can and does drill safely in deepwater.  Ms. Cheney also informed the standing room only crowd that Shell had recently joined a consortium of oil companies such as Conoco Phillips, Chevron, and Exxon Mobil focused on containing oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico. 

Bringing a research angle to the panel, Mr. Robert Gagosian, president and CEO of the Consortium for Ocean Leadership, noted that data is being collected by both sides (BP and the U.S.) in a litigious manner.  Litigious meaning that there is no transparency or visibility into the data being collected but to be used at a later date in legal proceedings.  Mr. Gagosian is advocating an ocean observation program that is transparent and open to all.  He also clarified that collecting data in one “instant” is not advisable as the scientific process takes time and the data must be collected over long periods of time in order to measure the true impact of such a “spill” in the Gulf.

Former U.S. Secretary of the Interior from 1993 to 2001 Bruce Babbitt was quite vocal in his opinions that this type of accident will happen again unless there is a radical re-structuring of regulatory oversight.  Mr. Babbitt is pushing for an independent agency similar to how the NRC has regulatory oversight in the nuclear industry.  For certain there are agencies responsible for regulatory oversight in the offshore drilling business today but there was much debate over its effectiveness and independence.  Mr. Babbitt believes the industry to be effectively un-regulated in its current state.

Finally it was Hollywood’s turn.  Kevin Costner, who needs no introduction, has visited the Gulf and informed the audience that there were no words to describe what is happening in the Gulf.  Mr. Costner also made a strong point that this is not “our” ocean, but belongs to others as well.  It turns out that Costner co-founded a company known as Ocean Therapy Solutions and in 1993 purchased a patent from the Department of Energy and invested $24 million after tax of his own money to perfect a centrifuge that would separate oil from water at high speeds.  His goal is to stop the recurring scenes of oil clean-up on beaches that we all saw after the Exxon Valdez disaster.  After much hardship trying to commercialize and get his machines approved by various government agencies, BP has purchased 32 of them and currently has 13 of them out in the Gulf.

All in all it was a very insightful panel discussion and in my opinion was one of the highlights of the Aspen Environment Forum.  Can oil companies drill in deep water safely?  Probably.  Should they be allowed to “police” themselves by forming safety consortiums?  Probably not.  Do we need more transparency in collecting and distributing data from the Gulf and other environmentally sensitive areas?  Absolutely.  Should the U.S. have an independent regulatory agency with strong oversight on this type of drilling?  Yes.  Will there be another accident?  Of course.  Should the U.S. government allow new technologies to aid in the clean-up of future spills?  The answer is a resounding “yes.”   


Jon Brock is President of utility and energy advisor Desert Sky Group, LLC.  He can be reached at

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