Crude Confessions: Massive Saudi Oil Spill in 1993?

A mishap during the loading of an oil tanker off Saudi Arabia in 1993 initiated a cascading disaster, resulting in what was the largest offshore oil spill ever, but the oil was mostly recovered by deploying supertankers to vacuum up the spill. This is the story told by a former Saudi Aramco engineer in concert with his efforts to convince BP and the U.S. Coast Guard to consider this approach for cleaning up the recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

While the possibility of a spill-tested but presently ignored solution to the unfolding environmental mess is very intriguing, I was equally drawn to the fact that, if the story were true, Saudi Aramco had managed to keep this massive spill and its mostly-successful remediation a secret for over sixteen years. Not unexpectedly, Saudi Aramco has denied that this spill took place. Who is telling the truth?

Who cares! Start the movie!

Background: The Oils of War

The Arabian (or Persian) Gulf is not one of the more pristine bodies of water, given that it is the conduit for a good chunk of the world's oil and is perforated at its rather shallow bottom with hundreds of wells. But what is currently believed to be the largest spill happened not as a result of an accident, but rather as war strategy. On January 16, 1991, Allied forces began bombing Iraq in preparation for the military reconquest of Kuwait. About 2-3 days later, Iraq began releasing oil from the Kuwait Sea Island terminal into the Arabian (Persian) Gulf. This spill was later augmented by oil from other sources including tankers and refineries. The oil flowed for about 10 days, and although the total amount of oil spilled is not precisely known, and EPA estimate of 6 million barrels makes this the largest oil spill on record, surpassing the 3.5 million barrels Ixtoc Gulf of Mexico spill in 1980.

Given the direction of water flow in the Arabian Gulf, the shores of Saudi Arabia bore the brunt of the spill:

The largest oil spill in the history of the Gulf hit 700 kilometers (435 mi) of Saudi Arabia’s coastline during the 1991 Gulf War. As it drifted south, the oil sank into wet sands and formed layers of tar that poisoned the breeding grounds of fish and crustaceans. Teams from Saudi Aramco worked around the clock to protect vital water-intake channels used for power generation, desalination and injection, and they recovered more than 1.2 million barrels of oil—the largest amount ever collected from a spill—thus sparing hundreds of kilometers of beaches and intertidal areas.

Years later, the environmental effects were still being assessed all over the Gulf. Studies continued for many years, many scientific papers were published, and oil companies developed emergency spill response plans to handle such situations. But according to one report, an even bigger spill happened sometime in 1993, but nobody told anybody who was still fretting over the previous largest spill.

Déjà vu, Oil Over Again

In Esquire Magazine's The Politics Blog, former Shell Oil President John Hofmeister was being interviewed by writer Mark Warren about BP's response to the current crisis when he said this:

JH: The work going on to close the well is taking multiple approaches, and I am aware that BP has sent out a message to all the oil companies asking for help and advice. And I actually sent some people to BP in terms of the spill response cleanup to try to get them aware of a process that has been used in the Arabian Gulf that has not been used in the Gulf of Mexico, and that is to use supertankers, empty supertankers, to suck up the oil off the surface, where they can store the oil, they can treat the water, they can discharge the water and then they can either salvage the oil or destroy it, as the case may be. And I know the mayor of New Orleans and a few other officials are now asking BP about that process as a result of these engineers coming forward from Saudi Aramco.

ES: When did that spill happen, John?

JH: I don't actually know, but it was sometime back, there was a huge, huge spill that never got reported, because they don't have an open press, obviously... But I was told it was a 700-million-gallon spill.

ESQ: That would be the biggest, right?

JH: That would be the biggest the world has ever known. And they used six supertankers to clean up the oil and were very successful. We'd do well to get supertankers in the Gulf.

Hofmeister learned of the Saudi spill during the recent Offshore Technology Conference in Houston in a conversation with Nick Pozzi, who was employed by Saudi Aramco and had first hand knowledge of the cleanup (although not the incident itself). Pozzi and his current business partner, attorney Jon King, have been trying to persuade BP to consider the strategy that seemingly worked on a much larger spill in 1993.

Warren next contacted Pozzi and King and they gave further details of the Saudi spill and cleanup effort.

The primary equipment that was used to remove the crude from the Arabian Gulf was Super Tankers. The Super Tankers were used to store everything, run thru on-shore three-phase separators and sent to on-shore tank farms for additional clean up using centrifuges. The more the oil spreads the more tankers will be needed. Nick would be willing to provide a conceptual non-technical drawing to visualize this process.

Also at the above link is video from the NBC Today show with an interview of Hofmeister.

Oil Port 1993

The thought of six supertankers meandering around slurping up oil like whales feeding on krill invokes wonder. Further details on the incident itself are revealed in a story from AOLNews:

The 1993 Persian Gulf spill, Pozzi says, began when Aramco was loading a tanker and "the umbilical cord got away." Oil started spewing from the pumps. Panicked, a line of tankers waiting to be filled began hightailing away from the flammable spray. Massive ships maneuvered in tight quarters. It was chaos.

Because of a confidentiality agreement with Aramco, Pozzi won't describe exactly what happened next, except to say that "there were [then] other mishaps causing other oil to spill."

"The order of magnitude rose exponentially due to the panic level," he says.

The Politics Blog also had this:

The suck-and-salvage technique was developed in desperation across the Arabian Gulf following a spill of mammoth proportions — 700 million gallons — that has until now gone unreported, as Saudi Arabia is a closed society, and its oil company, Saudi Aramco, remains owned by the House of Saud. But in 1993 and into '94, with four leaking tankers and two gushing wells, the royal family had an environmental disaster nearly sixty-five times the size of Exxon Valdez on its hands, and it desperately needed a solution.

To recap the sequence of events, what we have so far is:

  1. A tanker is loading crude while several (at least three) additional tankers are waiting in line
  2. The "umbilical cord" feeding the tanker is dislodged, spewing crude oil into the water
  3. The tankers begin scrambling to move away from the oil
  4. In the ensuing panic, four tankers end up leaking oil and two wells are somehow uncorked.
  5. 700 million gallons of oil is eventually spilled, with 85% of it collected over six months using supertankers as giant wet/dry vacuums.
  6. Oil is offloaded to onshore gas oil separation plants.

Assuming these details are accurate, the following questions come to mind:

  1. When did the spill happen?
  2. Where could this spill have happened?
  3. Could that much have been spilled?
  4. Where did the tankers used to collect the oil come from?
  5. How would the oil be separated from the water?
  6. Is there any evidence of such a spill?

Alternately, all or part of the story could be fiction. Indeed, after several weeks, Saudi Aramco finally issued a flat denial.

Dhahran, June 22, 2010 -- Saudi Aramco unequivocally refutes allegations reported in several news media and Internet blogs about an alleged "secret" oil spill during 1993 in the Arabian Gulf. The Company states that there is no factual basis to those allegations, and there was no such event or incident as alleged concerning its operations in 1993, 1994, or at any other time. Saudi Aramco confirms that it participated in oil spill cleanup activities and operations in early 1991 during the Gulf Conflict. Under the leadership of Saudi Arabia’s government, the Company, together with various agencies, undertook oil spill cleanup operations lasting for about six months until July 1991. The Company’s response to the 1991 oil spill was carried out with the technologies and best practices available at that time, such as portable skimmers and containment booms.

Although the company utilized a number of work and supply boats, Saudi Aramco wishes to clarify that no supertankers were used during the 1991 spill cleanup operations. The concept of utilizing supertankers to collect large quantities of spilled oil was never pursued. The Company has made reports available to several news media outlets about Saudi Aramco’s involvement in the 1991 spill cleanup. One of the reports was published in Saudi Aramco’s Dimensions Magazine Fall 1996 edition and can be viewed at The Company also confirms that Mr. Nicholas Pozzi is a former employee and worked as a foreman in Saudi Aramco’s East-West Pipeline Department. However, he made no significant contribution to the Company’s spill preparedness or response teams during his employment or at any other time. The claims made about his alleged efforts at a 1993 oil spill response operation are without factual basis.

This seems rather unambiguous. Some might remain skeptical, however, as having to own up to this after so many years would be embarrassing. Would they lie?

The Motivation for Secrecy

Trying to understand the need for Saudi Aramco to keep such an incident secret is probably no easier than understanding their need to keep their oil production data secret. In my articles on various Saudi projects, I have noted several cases where they have clearly been less than forthcoming:

The Oil Drum

Satellite o'er the Desert

Many observers are skeptical about Saudi oil reserves claims as well as the status and oil production level of Ghawar, the world's largest oil field. While there are valid arguments to be made for more transparency, Saudi Aramco can also make valid claims of the need for secrets (for security reasons if nothing else). But an oil spill which could impact other counties coastlines (not to mention its ability to deliver oil to customers) would seem to fall into a different category. The coastline of Saudi Arabia suffered the most from the 1990 spill during the Gulf War:

The Gulf War Oil Spill Twelve Years Later: Consequences of Eco-Terrorism

What Happened To The GULF: Two Years After The World's Greatest Oil-Slick

On one hand, Saudi Aramco has allowed the documentation of many field-related problems in Society of Professional Engineers (SPE) publications. Indeed, Matt Simmons wrote Twilight in the Desert based on an analysis of many such papers. But there is also a curious, almost amateur, approach to the censuring of the papers of name and place data. Nevertheless, information eventually leaks out in some form. A concealment of this magnitude would seem to require a more foolproof approach and motivation.

On the other hand, Saudi Aramco doesn't really admit to any oil spills. From The Tankership Tromedy:

You can see that most of the CTX transfer spills are at the discharge port (activity codes L and d). I would not make much of this. Most load ports are in countries which, whether they are strict or lax, don’t make spills public. The CTX database has no spills at Ras Tanura/Juaymah by far the largest tanker load port in terms of volume. This port loads half-a-dozen big tankers a day. Based on my experience, I’d be surprised if this port averaged less than one spill a week, almost all of them quite small.

Checking Out the Story

Despite the rather emphatic denial by Saudi Aramco, I will look into the possibility of the spill, partly because some of you won't believe them, but also because it's fun. Back to the questions raised earlier:

1) When did the spill happen?

The account says the cleanup occurred from 1993 into 1994, spanning six months, so the spill would have happened in summer 1993.

2) Where could this spill have happened?

(This will take a bit longer to cover)

Most Saudi Arabian crude oil is loaded onto tankers at one of four separate locations: The main oil export terminal at Ras Tanura, the Al Juaymah offshore terminal about 20 miles northwest of Ras Tanura, a similar but smaller offshore terminal in the offshore Zuluf oil field, and the Yanbu terminal on the Red Sea (via pipeline), Below is a map showing the location of Ras Tanura along with those for the major Saudi offshore fields.

Major Saudi Arabian Offshore Oil Fields. Oil export terminals are indicated with reddish dots.

The largest oil exporting terminal in the world is located on the Ras Tanura peninsula and is capable of loading over 5 million barrels of oil per day onto tankers moored on one of two T-shaped terminals (small vessels only) or on one of a cluster of four Sea Islands located offshore in deeper water. The limit for tankers berthed at the Sea Islands is 550,000 dwt (dead-weight tons). Shown below is a satellite image of Ras Tanura seen in Google Earth (this image and those further below copyright Google and Friends).

Ras Tanura Oil Terminal, the world's largest.

Below is a closeup of a tanker being loaded at one of the Sea Islands. Oil is delivered to the islands via underwater pipeline and pumped into the tankers via several Chiksan loading arms, or articulated steel pipes.

Tanker loading at Ras Tanura Sea Island.

Here is a video of a Chiksan gasoline loading operation gone awry.

The Al Juaymah Offshore Terminal is located to the northwest of Ras Tanura, just east of the Qatif oil field as shown below. The Qatif field lies both on and off shore, with several offshore platforms positioned to drill and maintain offshore wells. Oil is loaded onto tankers from Single Point Moorings (SPMs) anchored in deeper water such that larger ships can be handled (up to 700,000 dwt). It has been in operation since 1974. The Al Juaymah complex also includes a pier from which liquified natural gas (LNG) is loaded onto ships.

Al Juaymah Offshore Oil Terminal (Single Point Moorings)

Oil is similarly delivered from shore in underwater pipeline to a platform, distributed to the SPMs and then transferred to the tanker via large flexible hoses connecting them to the SPM. There are six SPMs at Al Juaymah, which can theoretically output six million barrels per day and has been in operation as early as the 1970s. In a 2005 Google Earth satellite image, I can only find two SPMs, although others might be present in low resolution images.

Two tankers (separated by one mile) loading at Al Juaymah Single Point Moorings in 2005. These tankers are each just over 1000 feet in length.

Shown below is a closeup of the darker tanker from above receiving oil. There are two "hoses" attached to this tanker, whereas there are three attached to the other.

Tanker loading at Al Juaymah Single Point Mooring.

I haven't found anything recent on loading rates, although SPE 4013-MS suggests that each (in the late 1970s) was designed for a flow of at 130,000 barrels per hour but averaged only half that in practice.

The operational principle is that ships can rotate independently around the SPMs, orienting themselves to minimize crosswinds (the two tankers are pointing northwest, which is the direction that the wind normally comes from: down the Saudi shore). The Louisiana Offshore Oil Port (LOOP) in the Gulf of Mexico operates in the same way as Al Juaymah, albeit in reverse (oil is pumped out of the tankers).

Finally, the terminal at the Zuluf field, which reportedly ships oil from the Zuluf and Marjan fields, has only a single SPM. Unfortunately, there are no high resolution images available from Google Earth that might show whether this is still operational, and I haven't found any historical information, either.

3) Could that much have been spilled?

700 million gallons is a lot of oil. There were reportedly three sources:

- Oil from the terminal ("unbilical cord")

- Oil from leaking tanker(s)

- Oil from two "gushing" wells, damaged during the melee

The initial spill was from the supply hoses connected to the tanker being loaded. As seen in the video linked above of a Chiksan loader spewing gasoline, the flow rates can be quite high. This paper discusses tanker loading rates at the Al Juaymah terminal. In case of an accident, a lot of oil can flow in the near term, but there are many ways in which the flow could be stopped, from shutting valves to turning off pumps to just letting the storage tank run out. The amount spilled might be enough to incite immediate panic, but nothing approaching 700 million gallons.

The largest tankers can hold about 2 million barrels, or 84 million gallons. Four such supertankers leaking out all their oil would yield 336 million gallons. Now we're getting somewhere. However, with the exception of the one actually being loaded, the tankers were waiting to be loaded; i.e. they were empty of oil. Beyond that, it would seem that the only way the first tanker could have spilled a ship full of oil is if it was a) filled nearly full, and then b) sank.

This leaves the oil wells. The only realistic scenario would be for a tanker colliding with a platform connected to two or more wells. A problem is identifying platforms that could have actually been involved. There are no wells (or offshore platforms) near Ras Tanura. In contrast, as seen in a map from earlier, there are a few platforms near the Al Jumayah moorings (at least there are now -- Qatif was reworked in 2004, so those platforms might not have been there). However, the nearest of these are for water injectors. The water gets increasingly shallow further into the field (20 feet deep), so it is not clear that tankers would have been able to get there. This leaves only the Zuluf terminal as the only location consistent with the leaking well scenario.

Let's do a simple calculation and assume that of the 700 million gallons (around 17 million barrels) 2 million leaked from the ship(s) and terminal, and that the remaining 15 million barrels flowed out at a constant rate from two wells for six months. This translates to over 40 thousand barrels per day per well. Now, a deepwater GOM well might do this due to the much higher pressure, but the reservoir pressures for offshore Saudi fields do not support this kind of rate, and certainly not for an extended period of time. Early Ghawar wells flowed at perhaps a third to a fourth of that. And the fields that could have been involved, Zuluf and Qatif, were not very productive in 1993; Qatif was essentially dead, and was shut down completely from 1995 until it was reworked (in 2004).

Worse yet, the assumption of a constant flow over six months is not realistic, so it would have to be much higher at first. The reservoir pressures involved (~3000 psi) would not support this flow. It does not seem at all possible to spill as much oil as in the described scenario. The other side of this question is whether they could have collected 85% of it. This is rather doubtful as well, regardless of the amount of oil, because more than 15% would probably have evaporated in the hot summer.

4) Where did the tankers used to collect the oil come from?

Saudi Arabia has (and had) it's own fleet of tankers. Vela International Marine Ltd. is a fully-owned subsidiary of Saudi Aramco based in Dubai. In 1992, Vela had just expanded it's capacity by purchasing four used tankers, giving it eight. In addition, a 1993 merger with the Saudi Arabian Marketing and Refining Company (SAMAREC) gave it access to four medium range product tankers.

5) How would the oil be separated from the water?

In normal operations, a mixture of oil, gas and water flowing from the wells and then through pipelines is separated out in Gas Oil Separation Plants. This is conceptually a simple process, but is rather complicated when undertaken at the rate necessary to handle the volumes coming from the wells. Saudi GOSPs are usually not designed to handle high water cuts. In north Ghawar, new wells were drilled to add new dry oil production to mix with that from existing high-water-cut wells so as to avoid building more GOSP capacity. There was likely limited spare GOSP capacity at that time, as Saudi production was fully ramped up after being throttled back in the late 1980s. Getting oil from the tankers to GOSPs on shore would not have been easy, either.

6) Is there any evidence of such a spill?

It's not enough to say that they could keep the spill a secret because they are a "closed society". The Gulf has a lot of ship traffic, both to the main oil ports as well as near to the Zuluf field. A spill near populated areas would be especially difficult to conceal. The immediate situation was reportedly chaotic, and the oil cleanup operation proceeded for six months and beyond. It is hard to envision how, if this occurred near Ras Tanura, that this could have escaped notice by people not completely within the Saudi Aramco cone of silence. Al Juaymah is far enough offshore that cleanup operations might be more inconspicuous. A big problem would be that dangerous fumes from Qatif wells (very high sulfur content) would have required public safety measures that would not have gone unnoticed.

Summer 1993 was just a few years after the Gulf War Spill. There were many studies undertaken subsequent to that by international research institutions. Water and sediment samples were taken in many locations around the Gulf, including near the possible spill sites during the time in question. There are no reports of any unusual results suggesting a new flow of oil. A study involving tar ball collection on the Qatari coastline showed hints of some increased activity, but the noise is rather high and the time correlation a bit loose:

Tar ball accumulation on the Qatari coast, from [ref]. Note: data arbitrarily offset for clarity.

I did find one internet reference to a possible spill in 1993. At an oil spill workshop and exercise (date unknown), a manager for Bapco, the Bahraini national oil company, said something interesting:

Mr. Al-Ansari addressed the participants in the closing ceremony and stressed the importance of time when responding to oil spills.

He added that when he was Incident Commander in 1993 a large oil spill hit Jeddah Island and if the response then had been five hours sooner, 45% of the overall costs associated with responding to the oil spill would have been saved.

Jeddah is a small island located between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, looking something like a posh retreat. It remains to be explained what qualifies as a "large oil spill", but it is something. Given Bahrain's close relationship with the rulers of Saudi Arabia, it's likely that no official protest was lodged.

Given the above, it is likely that an oil spill occurred in the Arabian Gulf in 1993. Would the effects from a massive spill be expected to be more pronounced?

In 1980, a blowout at an offshore well in Saudi Aramco's Hasbah field spewed oil for 8 days, for a total of 100,000 barrels. However, the Qatari coastline was affected for months. Hasbah is located southeast of the Zuluf field. Even though it was claimed that 85% of the oil from the purported spill was collected, the first few days (before significant oil collection could have occurred) would have been several times 100,000 barrels, and would have spread over such a wide area that going unnoticed seems unfathomable.

Lastly, we can look at Saudi Aramco's activities subsequent to this. They have been quite active in coordinated spill response drills and workshops. Here is one particular document which discusses many issues:

Saudi Aramco Oil Spill Approach, Prevention, and Readiness

In 1998, Saudi Aramco and the Petroleum Association of Japan (PAJ) conducted a joint exercise to test a coordinated response to a spill in the Arabian Gulf. PAJ had been working since 1991 to safeguard the transport of oil from the Middle East to Asia and had stockpiled oil spill remediation equipment at the Khafji oil field (shared with Kuwait) in 1994. The interesting facet is the description of the scenario given in the paper linked above:

The exercise scenario was developed by PAJ a consultant, Mr. Andrew Crawford of Water born Environmental Limited. The exercise scenario called for an oil spill involving a tank rupture in a Vela vessel during loading operations at Ju’aymah Terminal, which is located about 10 kilometers north of the main terminal at Ras Tanura. In addition, the scenario called for a hose rupture at the loading arm in the terminal, with the combined total amount of oil spilled coming to about 70,000 barrels. The resultant slick would then hit the shoreline and spread offshore near the main Ras Tanura Terminal. Ju’aymah has a major power generation plant at nearby Ghazlan, which would have to be notified to protect its water intake. The Ras Tanura Refinery water intake would also be affected. This amount of oil spillage is higher than the rated capability of Saudi Aramco's oil spill equipment in the Ras Tanura area.

Several questions come to mind here. First, was this really just Mr. Crawford's inspiration? If so, did the Saudi Aramco people present just sit there with poker faces? No mention is made of supertankers as cleanup tools either. But anyway, we have the beginnings for our movie plot. Perhaps Mr. Crawford would get a royalty check. Nick Pozzi...probably not.


Did this massive spill happen?

(cue the closing theme and credits...)

Acouple of things:

The Persian (Arabian) Gulf is shallow, especially in the area where this alledged spill occured. The normal sea conditions are very calm (compared to the offshore GOM).

This (again alledgedly) was primarily a surface spill. Little opportunity for the oil to disperse compared to the current mile deep GOM spill. Even if offshore wells were compromised they would not have been deepwater wells. This changes things alot.

That being said, the idea of large tankers, with their immense volumes, being used as oil/water separators seems valid. Pump the mixture into the tanks, allow separation to occur, and pump the water out of the bottom. This would require fairly quiet sea states to allow effective collection and separation to occur. Again, the normal conditions in the GOM are quite different from those in the Persian Gulf (I've spent alot of time floating both).

Just MHO..

Relative to the GOM, it is shallow everywhere. That would probably make containment/collection easier (as would the calmer water), but the huge initial volume consistent with the purported magnitude would have nonetheless dispersed considerably before they would have been able to deploy anything.

WRT to collecting it into tankers, I didn't get into this too much. But there would have been a rather thin oil layer, and unless you have specialized equipment to skim over a wide area, you will be loading predominantly water into the tanker. Separation would occur, of course, but the throughput would be rather limited -- and I don't know if the existing plumbing would facilitate this.

During my time on the Persian Gulf the seas were often dead calm (sometimes depressingly so). This would be perfect conditions to deploy miles of booms.

Regarding the shear volume of this purported spill, the level of containment reported seems a little suspect. My main point is that what may have worked for KSA would likely have a different outcome in the GOM.

In the 80's when we needed to pump oily bilges we would call for a "doughnut", a bottomless barge that the oily water would be pumped into. The oil was well mixed with seawater yet would separate out fairly quickly onced pumped into the doughnut. With oil tankers, the mix could be pumped through the tanks in series to enhance separation, sort of like this gizmo:

Thanks for your input. The implied (and often stated) justification for using supertankers for the BP Macondo spill is that it worked before on a much bigger spill. If said spill didn't really happen (or was perhaps overstated), it might still worth considering as a possibility, albeit taking into consideration the differences in situation (deep blowout, rougher waters, etc.)

The work that Saudi Aramco did with Petroleum Association of Japan (and the timing) suggests to me that they had nowhere close to enough booms to contain much of a spill in 1993.

A really interesting article, very well researched and written, thanks. The story certainly sounds like an urban legend, except there is one person, Nick Pozzi, who claims first hand knowledge--not of the spill, but the cleanup. It's hard to imagine how there could be no additional evidence of such a massive event. I'm very skeptical.

Henry Fountain, science editor of the NY Times, has a piece today with a paragraph (since removed) that repeated the canard about the Jones Act preventing the use of foreign technology such as advanced skimmers. He added that the law "makes a non-starter" of the proposal to scarf up oil with supertankers like the Saudis did with their secret spill in the 90's. Gag. We need to ride herd on "the world's greatest newspaper." The Jones Act specifically excludes oil spill response vessels.

The uncorrected version:

I must say up front that I have zero experience in such affairs but speaking as a follower of politics and the news in general, I am confident that there were enough newshounds out there in the world to have made it virtually impossible to keep such a huge spill secret;people quit and retire, and they take pictures for thier own personal reasons, and something definitive would have made it into the press .Maybe the Soviets or the Chinese could have kept such a disaster secret if it happened inland well away from any curious international eyes.

Even businesses such as those involved in the comings and goings of ships would have had plenty of reason to ask why a ship scheduled to load at the alleged scene of the spill was diverted or delayed for days or weeks.

Any spill that occured at the alleged place and time was probably only a rather small fraction of the reported size, otherwise it would have been impossible to keep the secret.

As far as using supertankers to clean up the spill goes, it is hard to imagine that such ships were suitable for such operations without some modifications being made that would likely take at least a week or two even under emergency conditions, unless they were used simply as storage vessels where the vacuumed up water and oil were allowed to seperate.

This might not require anything at all in the line of modifications if each tanker worked as part of a team with other smaller ships doing the actual recovery and pumping it onto the tanker.

It seems very likely that the existing piping and valves on a tanker could either be used as configured or quickly reconfigured to make it easy to unload a tank compartment at any level from the top to the bottom.That would be all that is needed as the oil and water, given adequate time, seperate on thier own.

Somebody who has experience in country over there can throw a lot of light on this mystery by answering this simple question:

At any given time how many Americans, Englishmen, Japanese,Germans, and others would have been working as or for oil industry contractors or vendors of other goods and services in the general area?

My guess is that there would have been quite a few, and nearly all of them would have necessariy heard about or seen with thier own eyes anything as disruptive as a major spill.You can't keep things that necessarily involve tens of thousands of people working out in the wide open secret unless it is done by making elaborate, detailed and expensive security arrangements well ahead of time.

Buying the silence of the lot would be next to impossible.

Actually I don't think you'd get much separation in an oil tanker or any other tank with the skimmings from the USGC.

1) what's floating isn't all that different from the density of water at this point. The heavy stuff is sinking and the light stuff evaporates

2) There has been so much soap (dispersant) mixed in, what you have is an oily scummy mess instead of just petroleum.

Just dumping the mess into a tanker and hoping it will separate in a reasonable length of time is not sensible. I'd really want to see it work on a smaller scale before I got all Chris Matthews and hired a dozen super tankers. What you need is a vessel with a serious set of hydrocyclones to separate out the mess. Just dump the cleaner water back over the side and only store the heavy oily cut which could be shuttled to a refinery to run through their desalters assuming the dispersant hasn't made it un usable which is likely in my mind. I can't imagine soap in the desalter is a great idea.

You are probably right, although one could argue that they didn't necessarily use dispersants.

Separation of oil from water flowing out of a well isn't as simple as cake, either, and there would possibly be emulsion issues.

Somebody wants to try this with their customized supertanker:,0,3...

Built in South Korea as a supertanker for transporting oil and iron ore, the six-month-old vessel was refitted in the wake of the BP oil spill with 12, 16-foot-long intake vents on the sides of its bow designed to skim oil off surface waters.

Script rewrite!

There has been so much soap (dispersant) mixed in, what you have is an oily scummy mess instead of just petroleum.

soap(surfactants) are the primary chemical used in breaking an emulsion.

a "normal" emulsion consists of water droplets dispersed in oil, iow, the discontinuous phase is water with oil the continuous phase.

i could be mistaken, but i believe the emulsion created by the dispersants is what is refered to as a "reverse" emulsion, iow water is the continuous phase and oil discontinuous.

also, some of the oil is floating on top of the water. this should tell us that this part of the oily mixture can be separated relatively easily.

oilfield operations are thouroughly familiar with reverse emulsions, they are just not that rare. percy johnson (you might ask who the he11 is percy johnson ?) explained to me a long time ago that the best approach to oil emulsion treating is to use a combination of heat, chemicals and retention time to allow gravity to do its majic. other means are available which include electrostatic treatment sometimes refered to as a chemray treater and in extreme cases a centrifuge.

imo, the separation of oil from water is minor, compared to capturing the oily mixture with a fricken' supertanker.

Atleast three times in this article Saudi Arabia is labelled a "close society". How many saudi nationals living in saudi arabia do the author know? What deeds of them make you label them as members of a close society?

What is a close society anyway? A reasonable guess is opposite of an open society. An open society is defined as the following by wikipedia:

"The open society is a concept originally developed by philosopher Henri Bergson and than by Austrian and British philosopher Karl Popper. In open societies, government is responsive and tolerant, and political mechanisms are transparent and flexible.

The state keeps no secrets from itself in the public sense; it is a non-authoritarian society in which all are trusted with the knowledge of all. Political freedoms and human rights are the foundation of an open society.

In Karl Popper's definition, found in his two-volume book The Open Society and Its Enemies, he defines an "open society" as one which ensures that political leaders can be overthrown without the need for bloodshed, as opposed to a "closed society", in which a bloody revolution or coup d'état is needed to change the leaders. He further describes an open society as one "in which individuals are confronted with personal decisions" as opposed to a "magical or tribal or collectivist society"."

Lets compare this to american society of today to find if its an open society. According to article, an open society has:

1. Government is responsive and tolerant

Responsive as in responsible? See the two wars, katerina, real estate bubble, gulf oil spill etc in recent history. Tolerant? see what happened to an american general in afghanistan who dare to question the general war policy of american president.

2. Political mechanisms are transparent and flexible

See any transparency in how congress and senate really work, not the show piece sessions of them? How and by whom their members are funded? How the "investors" who fund them are "paid back"? How large govt contracts especially of defence department go to selected contractors without a public offering?

Flexibility? How easy it is to have a third party that counts? How easy it is in america to be a republican as in "strong in defence" and at the same time support stem cells research for example? How easy it is in america to be a democrat as in balancing federal budget and at the same time close wild life areas to preserve species?

3. The state keeps no secrets from itself in the public sense.

Well where are the weapons of mass destruction which saddam hussain was claimed to posses? Either he do posses that and their finding is kept as secret from american public or he not posses them and american public was fooled. Why search for survivals at twin towers was stopped after dusk on 9/11 as american govt can't afford electric lights? Why american govt was so quick to sale the remains of twin towers in scrap without any engineers allowed to go and inspect the real cause of destruction? Why american govt is not able to give any solid answer to sightings of unidentified flying objects in past 50 years in area 51, nevada? Why not american govt keep enough soldiers and if not soldiers then some kind of para military troops (like rangers, border security guards whatever) in enough number in american border to help american people when natural disasters like caterina happen and have to wait for six days for those troops to come back to america? Why is america still there in iraq and afghanistan long after both govts have been overthrowned? Why do america veto each and every resolution that has teeth that is ever presented in united nations against israel?

4. Non-authoritarian society in which all are trusted with the knowledge of all. Political freedoms and human rights are the foundation of an open society.

Trust on govt, trust on corporations, knowledge of how govt and corporations work are some of the non-familiar phrases for american people. Political freedom and human rights in america are no more as bush passed laws hostile to these concepts.

5. An "open society" as one which ensures that political leaders can be overthrown without the need for bloodshed, as opposed to a "closed society", in which a bloody revolution or coup d'état is needed to change the leaders.

Has ever an american president be overthrown in last century and a quarter century more? Even when american president kennedy died hilariously his deputy was allowed to govern for the rest of the term, a part of american law that is totally opposite to the very concept of democracy.

On the other hand, saudi arabian society is open to new ideas that are beneficial to mankind. Ideas such as technology especially in medical and ofcourse in oil industry. A saudi arabian today know a lot more about current events happening in world (and mind you not all of them happen in middle east, remember north korea?),their deep understanding in terms of recent 50 years history and the "great game" being played between major world power since last two and a half centuries. How much of that an american common man know? Heck almost all of them can't even find where iraq is on a world map. I know about saudi arabian society because i personally know people there. I am not like the author of this article who like to flow in the general stream of demonizing all foreigners especially muslims.

Heck after almost a decade since 9/11 no american or british or french for that matter care to chat with a muslim even in a chatroom. It was not like that before 9/11. I personally tried to talked with literally thousands of americans and tried to give them proofs that we didn't do it but they don't listen. American people are so much duped by zeonist media that they not want to hear the other side of story. Thats not justice. Thats not human behavior. Thats barbarism. Thats brutality. Thats insaneness. Thats a close society. By definition a close society is close to new positive ideas. No american today want to listen to any idea at all. Thats ignorance.

Find out yourself who is more approachable to talk to and to present a new idea, an american or a saudi arabian, and thats after the language barrier saudi arabians have in understanding english, yet they atleast listen to what you are trying to say.

"Closed Society" was not my term, and I don't know if it originated with the author of the article I referenced it from, Mr. Pozzi, or the former president of Shell. I know people that have lived in SA, but no nationals. I don't begin to claim insight into the mind of the typical citizen of Saudi Arabia, a country with as many contradictions as any other.

With regards to the US, a better term for you might be "xenophobia", but the US doesn't have a monopoly on that either.

I doubt it is that people do not want to talk to muslims. I have a muslim acquaintance with whom I have many disagreements. He is an atheist palestinian, I am an agnostic jew. Unlike you, we are both highly literate, we know the difference in meaning between Close (next to, or when used as a verb to close a door, or a noun as in a close) and the opposite of open, which is closed. We both realize that all of the Arab world has fewer patents then say Greece. They have less than 1/10 that of South Korea. The number of new books from the Arab world is almost non existent. In the hard sciences, which tend to be based on some objective criteria as opposed to peace or literature which is mostly politics --- Seriously, kissinger gets a peace prize??? --- the number of Arab Nobel prize winners can be counted on one hand --- well maybe 2.

For the most part Women in the arab world are furniture, for use by men as they see fit.
So, I would suggest that the reason that you can not have a conversation with most people is that you do not live on the same planet that they do, but rather on some imaginary planet that has but a tenuous connection with reality.

I doubt it is that people do not want to talk to muslims. I have a muslim acquaintance with whom I have many disagreements. He is an atheist palestinian, I am an agnostic jew. Unlike you, we are both highly literate, we know the difference in meaning between Close (next to, or when used as a verb to close a door, or a noun as in a close) and the opposite of open, which is closed. We both realize that all of the Arab world has fewer patents then say Greece. They have less than 1/10 that of South Korea. The number of new books from the Arab world is almost non existent. In the hard sciences, which tend to be based on some objective criteria as opposed to peace or literature which is mostly politics --- Seriously, kissinger gets a peace prize??? --- the number of Arab Nobel prize winners can be counted on one hand --- well maybe 2.

For the most part Women in the arab world are furniture, for use by men as they see fit.
So, I would suggest that the reason that you can not have a conversation with most people is that you do not live on the same planet that they do, but rather on some imaginary planet that has but a tenuous connection with reality.

If such a big spill happened then why not pentagon reported it? We know that pentagon (and for that matter kremlin etc) has hundreds of satellites in space having nothing else to do but to spy in other countries and are quick in finding other countries' issues. How come all those powers have not reported? There can be only two answers to this: they got a deal with saudi govt or it not happen. Have your pick.

If it did happen and saudis were infact able to collect 85% of oil back AND keep it a secret then it show a few things:

(1) Saudis rule the world and can keep anybody including major powers like america shutup when they want to keep a secret.

(2) Saudi Arabia was practically far more industralized back in 1993 then america is now.

Whether that spill happened or not, american current spill showed a few things:

(1) America is no longer able to solve its own problems and have to take help from other countries. That proves that america is no longer a super-power because a super-power is able to solve its own problems easily and quickly. America might be a great power or a regional power but its not a super power anymore.

(2) America is vastly de-industralized. Thats American Great Leap Backwards. Thats why so much unemployment and job-less "recovery" in america.

(3) American govt is too short of man power, especially in military, to be deployed to such problems. Katerina was another proof of this. That inturn proof that far more american soldiers have died in the two wars than pentagon dared to admit. That is a sign that any foreign invasion on american soil today would be very hard to handle by american govt.

(4) American intelligentsia is out of constructive creativity. There is no shortage of ideas but there is a severe shortage of useful ideas.

Just about everybody who knows what goes on in the Middle East believes that the US has a defacto deal with the House of Saud;we provide the muscle , or the backup muscle, to keep them on thier throne, and they keep the oil flowing our way at a price we can pay, so far at least.

We do have relatively free communications here in the US;there is ample reason to believe that most American reporters, journalists,writers, and bloggers wouldn't last long in Saudi Arabia.


The Murrican idea of a closed society is one where a Murrican is not welcome to go and sprinkle candy wrappers and empty beer cans across the country side. By that definition, is Saudi Arabia a closed society? Maybe yes ;-)

Our preparedness for the GoM spill, or lack thereof, is certainly an indication that we need to rethink aspects of our way of doing things. I must say that your criticism is, to me, rather shallow and unlikely to bring us to any serious improvement. But thanks for your concern.

Thanks Joules for a balanced report on a weird story. The information about the Saudi oil operation is interesting in its own right, as an example of a really large modern industrial operation. Certainly much better run than the BP refinery in Texas.

I wonder if using tankers as the holding tanks in which the oil and water are separated by gravity/buoyancy has any relevance to GoM spill as it has developed. Certainly the massive use of dispersants will slow and weaken the separating effect of gravity/buoyancy. But I think it would be much faster to use something based on centripetal acceleration which can be much greater than gravitational acceleration on surface of Earth.

All in all, there is not much in the story that is helpful for the GoM spill response. To get lessons learned one really has to communicate with people who actually did the work, not merely people who truly believe, but display no technical competence.

Without the proof of concept, the idea has to be argued for on it's own merits.

But I think it would be much faster to use something based on centripetal acceleration which can be much greater than gravitational acceleration on surface of Earth.

Steer the tanker in a circle really fast?


I looked up the provided link and read the referenced article in Saudi Aramco's DIMENSIONS Magazine from Fall 1996, and on page 25 of the article it contained one intriguing passage. While describing the aftermath of the 1991 spill:

"...some 16 sites, actually looked worse than they had appeared back in March, showing even more "visible" oil than before. Had there been another, unreported oil spill?"

Even though the dates don't sync up exactly with a 1993 spill - the observation seems to refer to a 1992 survey of the area. But, there is also a 1995 survey being discussed on the same page. And of course, the article goes on to say that testing revealed that the "new" oil was from the 1991 spill. But did the analysis really show it to be 1991 oil, or did it just reveal that the oil was recently spilled from from fields in the Persian Gulf?

Is this the way a journalist "tells all" in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, while keeping head and body together?

That would be a little too subtle of a "tell all", in my opinion.

All of the studies made efforts to separate out the effects from the Gulf War spill from the "normal" background levels. But there were so many studies that, had something big occurred while testing was still going on, there would have been some indication of it.

Well it's certainly not a scientific way of approaching things, but wouldn't it be far more damning to just post video of Pozzi? Dude looks like he could vacuum up the oil and store it in his chin, and dissembles worse than Simmons.

Nice reporting, Joules.

The only way I see this working is if the tankers formed a square around the escaping oil source and confined the oil to a pool deep enough to dip their hose nozzles into.

I don't believe it happened.