Oil Booming 101 -or- How BP's Oil Booms in the Gulf of Mexico Don't Work

by | May 25, 2010 10:37 AM ET

There is an article on DailyKos.com and a video on YouTube called "Oil Booming 101." Unfortunately, both are laced with profanity - so much so that I cannot link to them from here. But despite the NSFW nature, the article/video contain some interesting information that shows how oil booming is supposed to work, and why BP's current booming attempts may be problematic in the Gulf of Mexico. What I hope to do in this post is provide a NSFW-to-SFW translation of the main points in the article/video, as well as a providing additional information.

So let's start at the beginning - what is an oil boom? It is a long piece of plastic tarp sewn so that there is flotation on top and a weighted skirt that sinks into the water. For example, a boom might be 100 feet long and 2 feet high. In a typical configuration, six inches of the boom floats above the water and a foot or a foot and a half of weighted skirt sinks into the water. You can see boom being manufactured in the following video. The boom consists of plastic tarp, foam for flotation and a chain to weigh down the skirt:

Central Fla. Company Sends Booms To Gulf

The following video shows boom being deployed. To protect a shoreline you need an anchor system (posts driven into the beach on shore, heavy concrete weights in the water), rope to connect the boom to the anchors and the boom itself:

The anchoring is extremely important - without proper anchors, wind, waves and tides will quickly scatter booms.

Why do you need oil boom? The photos in the following article tell the story:

Oil reaches Louisiana shores

Over one month after the initial explosion and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, crude oil continues to flow into the Gulf of Mexico, and oil slicks have slowly reached as far as 12 miles into Louisiana's marshes. According to Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, more than 65 miles of Louisiana's shoreline has now been oiled.

If you look on YouTube, you can find many videos that show booming efforts underway. However, almost all of it is being done incorrectly according to the article. Boom cannot be laid out in long lines, like a wall, with the assumption that it will stop the oil. It does not work that way if the boom is going to protect beaches, shoreline and nature preserves. For example, the kind of linear booming shown in the following videos is fairly useless, and the last video of the three demonstrates why:

For boom along shorelines to work and provide beach protection:

1) it has to be angled so that the oil is channeled by wind and waves.

2) The oil that is so channeled has to end up in catch basins, which need to be regularly emptied.

3) The booms need to be tended 24/7 because wind/waves/tides are constantly changing.

4) There should be multiple layers of boom because oil frequently spills over or under a single boom.

Here is a diagram from the article (minus the profanity) showing an example of the difference between proper booming and improper booming:

The article states:

booming is done properly, you can remove most, by far most of the oil from a shoreline and you can do it day after day, week after week, month after month. You can prevent most, by far most of the shoreline from ever being touched by more than a few transient molecules of oil.

That is certainly an overstatement, especially if the weather does not cooperate. And if a hurricane shows up all bets are off. But it is obvious that there are approaches that will work better when it comes to booming, and other approaches that are nearly useless.

The following heavily-illustrated document from the EPA shows how technical the art of booming can get when oil and ocean currents combine:

Coastal Fastwater Booming

After looking through that article, imagine how complex hundreds of miles of coastline protection could get. In an ideal case, the entire plan, and all the supplies, would have been in place ahead of time for the entire Gulf.

This video shows you an example of a floating catch basin, also known as an oil trap:

The point is that there are proper and improper ways to deploy boom to protect shorelines, and these techniques are taught in schools that tens of thousands of oil company employees have taken. It does not appear that these best practices are being used, and it does not appear that there was or is any coordinated plan in place to handle an oil spill like this.

In addition, there is not enough boom and anchors on hand to protect the miles of coastline necessary in the Gulf of Mexico. There could have been, but there is not. So it is all being manufactured and transported in crisis mode.

See also:

- Oil spill solutions - Lots of supplemental info on booming

- Latest News from the Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico is grim

- The oil spill in the Gulf is gigantic – here are two unconventional, surprising ways to soak up oil

- How do you burn oil floating in the ocean?

- Boom Types and Capabilities

- Interior Secretary Salazar installs ‘boom to nowhere' at Gulf oil spill photo op

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