When Kevin Costner and his centrifuge machines stepped onto the stage during last year’s Deepwater Horizon disaster, oil had been spewing for nearly a month. Internet message boards seethed with frustrated people asking why the well couldn’t be cemented shut, nuked, stuffed with golf balls. BP had been reduced to soliciting solutions from at-home inventors, and industry regulators had utterly failed on their watch.
Suddenly a movie star was going to save the Gulf? The late night talk show hosts ran with it: Letterman, Kimmel and Ferguson all cracked Costner jokes. Jon Stewart best articulated the skepticism with this one-liner: “If Kevin Costner has a machine that cleans up disasters, why didn’t he use it on “3000 Miles to Graceland?”
Even Jimmy Fallon took a swipe: “[Y]esterday, BP ordered 32 oil-separating machines designed by Kevin Costner. Costner said, all along, a voice kept telling him, ‘If you build it and there’s a huge oil spill and the oil company and government have absolutely no idea whatsoever how to clean it up, they will come.’”
The uselessness of Costner’s machines has since been widely documented. They only access surface water, can’t reach submerged oil, and never had a chance of making any dent in the crisis. The actor ran his demonstrations using diesel, not oil, and, in the words of MIT’s Jerry Milgram, “It would take thousands of the machines to make any difference.”
The Guardian’s Leo Hickman was most scathing, writing on June 17, 2010, “[The machine] sounds impressive, but just how much water is there in the Gulf of Mexico?
643,000,000,000,000,000 gallons… Just how long would it take Costner’s machine to rid the Gulf of Mexico of its oil? 6.1 BILLION years.” Hickman then said Costner’s machines would burn more oil in operation than they’d collect.
Though the actor was adamant during his months-long national media junket that he was “not just hocking [my] stuff,” it’s now apparent that he was. Beginning in 1993, Costner gambled $24 million of his own “after taxes” money on developing patented centrifuge technology he’d acquired from the Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory.
At last year’s Aspen Environment Forum in late July, he again couched his motives in quasi-religious terms, describing how he had awaken “from a dream state after the Exxon Valdez” feeling “at a loss,” and began a search for a way to “separate oil and water at high speeds.”
When he testified before Congress’s House Science and Technology Committee on June 9, 2010, Costner was more clear: he told the committee he had assumed “industry would rush” to his centrifuges, that “thousands” would be purchased as first line spill defense. However, for 17 years his pitches to the Navy, NOAA, oil companies, and various foreign governments had resulted in essentially “no response.”
In a blatant display of favoritism following Costner’s testimony, Congressman Dan Rohrabacher, R-CA, hosted a dinner for the star and members of Congress at his home, and began championing the machines. Nine days later, BP ordered 32 centrifuges for an estimated $52 million, more than double Costner’s investment. The star soon began making joint appearances with company officials, and became BP’s de facto public face of the disaster. A rival centrifuge manufacturer, John DiBella of Ft. Lauderdale’s Enviro Voraxial Technology, complained to The New York Times, “Unfortunately I don’t have [his] good looks.”
Despite spending so much money on Costner’s machines, BP did not use them. A BP spokeswoman told the LA Times this past February, “We do have six of them in a warehouse, and there are suspicions of more around someplace.” A September 2010 BP report on the clean-up effort made almost no mention of them at all. Costner himself has since admitted that by the time his machines were deployed in the Gulf, the oil was too deep to reach.
Certainly, BP had information that Costner’s machines wouldn’t work in the clean-up. After all, those same machines had been scorned by industry experts for the better part of two decades. So why would BP, egged on by Rohrabacher, waste $52 million chasing Costner’s red herring?
It seems natural that the disgraced company, as well as a government which had been shown to be ineffective, would want to trot Costner out in front of the cameras. In his films, Costner plays an underdog facing overwhelming odds—which is how many Americans felt in the face of the mighty oil plume. Costner beside them on TV, promising a solution, turned attention away from their impotence and negligence. The money wasted on Costner’s known-to-be-ineffective machines was a calculated decision to make the actor’s bad bet whole in exchange for the distraction of his image.
While BP and Rohrabacher will likely never own up to this callous episode, Costner may get his comeuppance. Last December, actor Stephen Baldwin, along with a business partner, launched a $12.5 million lawsuit in federal court, claiming Costner planned from the beginning to use the Deepwater Horizon disaster to market his machines to BP, and that he duped them into selling their shares for 14% of their value just before the BP contract was announced.
In June, US District Judge Martin Feldman in New Orleans threw out Costner’s request for dismissal, ruling Baldwin had “adequately pled securities law violations, fraud, and other claims.” The case will be heard in May, 2012.
Followers of Costner’s business escapades shouldn’t be surprised: made an honorary Sioux after “Dances With Wolves,” Costner ignored complaints by members of the Sioux Nation that a casino he had proposed would disrespect their treaties and sacred Black Hills land. He forged ahead anyway.
Tony D’Souza is an award-winning writer and journalist. His third novel, “Mule,” hits the stands this month.