The Sticky History of Kevin Costner's Oil Spill Machines

Championed as a cleanup savior, they had their share of dirty laundry

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The Guardian today reported that BP gave top priority to those now-famous oil-water separating machines developed by Kevin Costner's company, out of a field of some 123,000 other devices in its public call for solutions, even though they failed twice in field tests and "did not show particular promise." Why? Because Costner is famous, their source says. "He was on TV. He was telegenic, and there were enormous amounts of money being spent," one unnamed government analyst told the paper. During BP's Gulf of Mexico oil leak disaster, the machines got lots and lots of coverage, almost all of it positive.

Even The Guardian lauded the idea, saying Costner was taking on the role of "saviour of the Gulf of Mexico." ABC reported early on that the devices were "heading up" the spill, saying in its lede that BP had "turned to" Costner to help with its cleanup effort. "Kevin Costner to the rescue," ran The Telegraph's headline over a story a month later on BP's purchase of the machines. CNN reported that BP had "enlisted help" from Costner after his testimony to Congress, but it didn't mention that the machines were an entry in an open call to the public for solutions. In fact, none of the above-mentioned stories did. Perhaps there's merit to the practice of getting a celebrity to champion an experimental piece of technology to solve a problem as massive as the BP spill. It certainly does wonders for drumming up press coverage. But there were some nasty details that went under-reported, both about the machines' performance, and the behind-the-scenes bickering characterizing its deployment.

The failed tests were no secret at the time the machines debuted. Plenty of articles last year noted that a field test had failed when Costner was promoting the machines for BP's use. But most followed the one-sentence acknowledgment with a qualifier something like Time's: "But Costner claims that all necessary adjustments have been made." The machines' success turned out to be hit-and-miss. Definitely not the silver bullet. The Guardian talked to UCLA scientist Eric Hoek, who worked for Costner's company. " 'There were days when the vessels collected oil and watery liquid and the centrifuge processed it,' he said. 'There were days when the vessel pulled up but it was not processible, it was full of sticks, or peanut butter.' "

Remember that lawsuit from Stephen Baldwin? It has nothing to do with the operation of the machines, but it gives an insight into the allegedly brutal process by which Costner scored the deal: Stephen Baldwin sued Costner in late December, alleging Costner had edged him out of the company, Ocean Therapy, just before BP placed its big order. It's a somewhat convoluted story, but basically just before the spill, Costner had sold off his shares in the company because he wasn't selling any machines. Then the Deep Water Horizon oil rig blew up, the Gulf of Mexico started filling with oil, and Costner's one-time partner started trying to lobby BP to buy his machines. Baldwin got involved because he wanted to make a documentary about the spill, and he got in touch with the owners of the company and wound up signing an agreement getting 10 percent ownership. But they couldn't get BP interested until Costner testified before Congress. Then, Baldwin charges, Costner excluded him from a meeting with BP to make the deal to buy the machines, and Baldwin sold back his shares, erroneously thinking the venture had failed.

BP delayed payment, which delayed implementation of the devices. According to a Los Angeles Times report in June 2010, Costner and his business partner John Houghtaling delayed delivery of the machines because they didn't get paid in time by BP. The public barbs about the payment SNAFU didn't make too many headlines, but the Times story hints at a tough business relationship behind the scenes.

“Kevin has spent 15 years and $24 million of his own money on this technology, and we have spent over $1 million more than that on adjusting the machines and preparing them for testing,” said Costner’s business partner, Louisiana attorney John Houghtaling. “We haven’t gotten a check yet from BP. The sooner it comes, the sooner we can act.”


Ocean Therapy officials acknowledged that full implementation of the systems may depend on how quickly BP pays for the 32 it committed to Wednesday. The company’s largest machine – the V20 -- sells for about $500,000, an amount Costner suggested “is a potato chip to a giant oil company like BP.”

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.