BP's other problem: A gusher of dumb ideas

So you think you have a promising scheme for halting the leak in the Gulf and cleaning up Florida beaches? Get in line. By the end of June, British Petroleum was getting between 4,000 and 5,000 suggestions daily from the public on a Web site it set up for dealing with the Deepwater Horizon disaster. At that time, it had already received over 112,000 ideas. That doesn't count the suggestions sent to the Coast Guard, which set up a similar Web site.

Though much of this mental activity results in advice that is either obvious or impractical, BP takes every submission quite seriously. "Early on, we set up a call center in Houston to deal with people wanting to help. There is a staff of about 40 there, most of them engineers. They are divided into nine teams so they can triage ideas quickly," said BP spokesperson Mark Proegler, when I spoke with him at the end of June.

A review of the ideas coming in quickly shows why such filtering is imperative. "Most of it is fairly general. One guy called almost every day with the idea of crimping the riser tube. Another wanted teams of dogs to swim out in the ocean, come back, get cleaned up, and swim out again," says Proegler. "Most suggestions are positive spirited and are from people just trying to help," he adds, diplomatically.

Some ideas do indeed make the cut. Proegler says BP was ready to test 320 of them for feasibility. Nevertheless, "Nothing suggested has changed our approach to the subsea," says Proegler. "From the beginning we assembled a team of people from the energy industry, from academia, and from around the world to assess, stop, and contain the leak. Unless someone is quite technical, they probably aren't going to come up with something we haven't already thought of."

Apparently, though, it seems hard for the public to believe that anything sent to BP's Web site gets a serious look. The suspicion is that there is some secret evaluation path known only to insiders. Much of the skepticism centers on actor Kevin Costner and his idea for separating oil from water with a centrifuge. By early June, BP had ordered 32 of Costner's gizmos, according to the company that markets the devices. Did all this happen because of a submission to the BP Web site?

Actually, yes, says BP's Proegler. Evaluators there thought the concept had merit and "fast- tracked it through the process," he explains.

Costner says he's been working on his concepts since 1993. Those who have only begun pondering oil leaks more recently might do well to consult a lengthy list of ideas on BP's Web site which the company says it has already considered. They include pumping something into the well to kill the flow, anything involving the well riser (which is no longer connected), manipulating the blowout preventer, using straw and hay to absorb oil, and 19 other endeavors that responders have already looked at.

And you might also be advised to drop the idea if it involves dogs. -- Leland Teschler, Editor

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