Kevin Costner Oil Cleanup Centrifuge

How effective is Kevin Costner's oil separator? It depends who you ask.

The YahooNews headline “Costner cleanup device gets high marks from BP” caused me both amusement and skepticism. The former because it’s Kevin Costner and the latter because it’s BP.

It was treated as an oddball twist in the otherwise wrenching saga of the BP oil spill when Kevin Costner stepped forward to promote a device he said could work wonders in containing the spill’s damage. But as Henry Fountain explains in the New York Times, the gadget in question — an oil-separating centrifuge — marks a major breakthrough in spill cleanup technology. And BP, after trial runs with the device, is ordering 32 more of the Costner-endorsed centrifuges to aid the Gulf cleanup.

The “Waterworld” actor has invested some $20 million and spent the past 15 years in developing the centrifuges. He helped found a manufacturing company, Ocean Therapy Solutions, to advance his brother’s research in spill cleanup technology. In testimony before Congress this month, Costner walked through the device’s operation—explaining how it spins oil-contaminated water at a rapid speed, so as to separate out the oil and capture it in a containment tank


The device can purportedly take in thousands of gallons of oil-tainted water and remove up to 99% of the oil from it.

How encouraging! Until you read  the referenced Henry Fountain NYT story, titled “Advances in Oil Spill Cleanup Lag Since Valdez.” The lede:

Two decades after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, cleanup technology has progressed so little that the biggest advancement in the Gulf of Mexico disaster — at least in the public’s mind — is an oil-water separator based on a 17-year-old patent and promoted by the movie star Kevin Costner.


Deep into the story, they get to the merit’s of the Costner device:

BP said last week that it would buy 32 of Mr. Costner’s machines to help clean the oil spill. But the machines work much better on fresh oil than weathered oil, so it is unclear how much of a contribution they will make.

Experts in cleanup technologies say that there are no magic-bullet approaches on the horizon and that in some ways, cleanup is limited by a basic fact of nature: oil and water do not mix.

Indeed, even Costner admits this:

In testimony this month before Congress, Mr. Costner told of years of woe trying to market his separator, a centrifuge originally developed and patented in 1993 by the Idaho National Laboratory, for use in oil spills. One obstacle, he said, was that although his machines are effective, the water they discharge is still more contaminated than environmental regulations allow. He could not get spill-response companies interested in his machines, he said, without a federal stamp of approval.

I think it’s great that Kevin Costner is passionate about the issue and investing so much of his time and money.  But it’s less great that a movie star seems to be the most enthusiastic driver of innovation in this arena.

FILED UNDER: Science & Technology, Uncategorized, , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. JKB says:

    Well, part of the problem is the bureaucrats are using perfect to stop good enough. There are technologies, Costner’s and the Dutch ships, that will collect oil but the discharge is not 99.994% pure as the feddies require. Not a bad standard for discharging bilge and tank water from containment into the sea but a foolish rule for filtering oil already in the sea. Not to mention, near impossible to achieve since the federal government approved and promoted the use of dispersants which directly interfere with oil-water separation but keep the big ugly spill from floating on the surface.

    People tried to develop oil spill technology but perfection is a near-impossible target so it is wiser to invest in other fields. A bit of common sense would be useful but they don’t teach that in the Ivy League schools that pollute our regulatory class and environmental “community” organizers.

  2. steve says:

    “One obstacle, he said, was that although his machines are effective, the water they discharge is still more contaminated than environmental regulations allow. He could not get spill-response companies interested in his machines, he said, without a federal stamp of approval.”

    He said means Costner said. Anyone know if he is just trying to sell these or is he correct?


  3. PD Shaw says:

    Products used to respond to oil spills are subject to EPA approval under the National Contingency Plan:

    What Costner’s product would appear to do within a regulatory framework is pollute the environment by discharging oil. BP might be willing to take the risk since it’s already a responsible party, but it’s doubtful any independent contractor could be hired by BP to run Costner’s device if it’s not pre-approved.

  4. Duracomm says:

    It is becoming apparent that the obama administration’s incompetence / malfeasance / stubbornness in failing to waive the jones act combined with bureaucratic inertia has substantially increased the damage caused by the spill.

    Avertible catastrophe

    Observe the obama administration’s jones act incompetence in all its glory.

    witness the American reaction to the Dutch offer of help. The U.S. government responded with “Thanks but no thanks,”

    despite BP’s desire to bring in the Dutch equipment and despite the no-lose nature of the Dutch offer –the Dutch government offered the use of its equipment at no charge.

    Even after the U.S. refused, the Dutch kept their vessels on standby, hoping the Americans would come round. By May 5, the U.S. had not come round.

    To the contrary, the U.S. had also turned down offers of help from 12 other governments, most of them with superior expertise and equipment –unlike the U.S., Europe has robust fleets of Oil Spill Response Vessels that sail circles around their make-shift U.S. counterparts.

  5. Duracomm says:

    Watch how bureaucratic inertia at obama’s EPA increases the damage the obama’s jones act incompetence started.

    Avertible catastrophe

    Ironically, the superior European technology runs afoul of U.S. environmental rules. The voracious Dutch vessels, for example, continuously suck up vast quantities of oily water, extract most of the oil and then spit overboard vast quantities of nearly oil-free water.

    Nearly oil-free isn’t good enough for the U.S. regulators, who have a standard of 15 parts per million — if water isn’t at least 99.9985% pure, it may not be returned to the Gulf of Mexico.

    When ships in U.S. waters take in oil-contaminated water, they are forced to store it. As U.S. Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, the official in charge of the clean-up operation, explained in a press briefing on June 11,

    “We have skimmed, to date, about 18 million gallons of oily water–the oil has to be decanted from that [and] our yield is usually somewhere around 10% or 15% on that.”

    In other words, U.S. ships have mostly been removing water from the Gulf, requiring them to make up to 10 times as many trips to storage facilities where they off-load their oil-water mixture, an approach Koops calls “crazy.”

    Obama, you’re doing a heckuva job.

  6. Janel McGrath says:

    When I bacame a born again Christian, I promised to change my behavior. One charecteristic was to leave the fowl languge that our secular world seems to perpetuate on a daily basis.
    I have kept that promise for the most part but when I read such stupidity like the Obama response to the help offered by the Dutch and other goverments, I am severely tempted to release a lengthy not so pleasant “choice” words. Wisdom has sure left our goverment leaders. GRRR!! I could just slap him, (Obama) up side the head. Lord give me strength.
    Does any one out there remember, scripture ” I can do all things through him that strengthens me”

    How in the world can Obama stand by and refuse to use this Costner device.
    It is so obvious that removing 99% of the oil from the Gulf is much more desirable than the present method of beach skimming.
    And while he comtemplates , dolphins are drowning, birds are freezing to death, turtles are sufficating and pelicans, just off the endangered species list, may become extinct. Most importantly an entire 5th of our country is in shock and depression over the heart breaking loss of culture.
    We need to get a petition of citizens, flood the email and phone lines to congress and the White House staff.
    Lets do it Now.