Million dollar contest launched in US to clean oil spill

Only time will tell if angry locals end up dubbing the latest "spillionaires" to profit from an environmental disaster "BP whores" in years to come.

ABC News reports, "Mark Miller, whose environmental clean-up firm has hired nearly 1,500 workers in the Gulf Coast in the past month, takes issue with the term 'spillionaire' -- those who are cleaning up from the oil cleanup."

"There are probably companies or people who became 'oil spill' experts in the Gulf of Mexico the day the spill happened," said Miller, owner of the New York-based Miller Environmental Group, which was founded in 1971. "The 'spillionaire' term, which originated with the Exxon Valdez spill, was more geared towards the instant expert and instant contractor that capitalized on that event and really didn't come with the real structure and capability and experience."

Like the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska, British Petroleum's calamity in the Gulf of Mexico has turned into a lucrative business opportunity for many locals and outsiders. Exxon spent nearly $4.3 billion in cleanup and legal costs after that disaster, the most expensive at the time. Experts have estimated that BP will spend more than $20 billion on the cleanup alone, and that will mean a new generation of "spillionaires."

The Huffington Post recently reported, "But the small silver lining of the BP disaster isn't as local as most would hope. It stretches well beyond the Gulf Coast region to Washington -- where lobbyists are being paid huge sums to influence lawmakers on an array of oil-related issues -- and across the country, to big clean-up companies that have won hefty contracts to decontaminate the Gulf."

Procter & Gamble makes Dawn dishwashing liquid -- the only product certified by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services to be used to clean oil-soaked animals, according to the agency's "best practices" manual. The expected increase in demand for Dawn to wash wildlife in the Gulf will no doubt boost P&G's profits. And the company's delivery of 2,000 bottles of Dawn to the Gulf, a part of P&G's pre-existing campaign to save wildlife affected by oil spills, should do wonders for the company's corporate image.


The oil spill set off a flurry of lobbying from offshore drilling companies and environmental groups. In the first two quarters of 2010, BP paid more than $3.3 million to top lobbying firms like Podesta Group and Duberstein Group, according to filings. The American Petroleum Institute, the chief advocacy group for the oil industry, almost doubled its lobbying budget in the three months after the explosion, spending more than $2.3 million since March. And July filings show that other environmental groups ratcheted up their lobbying expenditures since the spill.

J. Steven Picou, an environmental sociologist, told CNN that a stigma may surround "spillionaires."

He describes how people may self-isolate to cope and how their distrust of others will grow and likely spread. Cynicism about BP, he says, will move on to the federal government, the Coast Guard, the Environmental Protection Agency, local governments, neighbors. Even family.

He recalls the "spillionaires," those who profited by leasing out their boats to help with the the Alaska cleanup and how they were "also called Exxon whores by their cousins, brothers and fathers."

"Communities are disrupted" by the strangers who come in after a technological disaster, Picou says.

Meanwhile, a US foundation that helped launch private spaceflight Thursday turned its gaze and pocketbook towards Earth, unveiling a 1.4-million-dollar contest to find new ways to clean up oil spills.

The year-long Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X Challenge, named for the wife of Google chairman Eric Schmidt who put up the 1.4-million-dollar purse and the X Prize Foundation which is organizing the competition, kicks off Sunday.

Frustrated at watching "the messy, uncoordinated" attempts to mop up oil from the massive BP leak in the Gulf of Mexico using outdated technology, the contest aims to inspire new ways to clean up future spills, Schmidt said.

"With nearly 4,000 active drilling platforms in the Gulf alone, and more than 10,000 oil platforms across the globe and millions of barrels of oil being transported every day by tankers, it's not a question of 'if' there is another spill but 'when,'" she added.

She argued that "we need to come up with better ways to respond quickly and to minimize the harm we are causing to marine life, coastal wetlands and beaches, and to our livelihoods."

Teams will submit a blueprint for spill-fighting technology online on the website of the X Prize Foundation (

The foundation has run other "incentive competitions" with multi-million-dollar purses, including one in 2004 that saw Burt Rutan build and fly a private vehicle into space.

A panel of experts will evaluate the entries for feasibility, cost, how well they lend themselves to large scale deployment, efficiency and eco-friendliness among other criteria, and the field will be whittled down by mid-2011 to a few teams of finalists.

Those teams will put their inventions to the test in a head-to-head competition at the National Oil Spill Response Research and Renewable Energy Test Facility in New Jersey.

The teams will have to clean up oil-tainted water, and the winners will get at least one million dollars. Runners-up and third place teams will earn 300,000 and 100,000 dollars respectively.

X Prize Foundation chairman Peter Diamandis expects hundreds of entries to the competition which aims to "spur small teams with big ideas to solve big challenges."

Other X Prize competitions currently under way include one to land a robot on the moon, one to build a safe, affordable car that gets at least 100 miles per gallon and another to sequence 100 human genomes in 10 days.

(with additional reporting by AFP)