Kevin Costner pushes environmental pedal to the metal

By Troy Hooper
Real AspenJuly 27, 2010

Fifteen years ago, part-time Aspen resident Kevin Costner was the producer and star of “Waterworld,” a post-apocalyptic sci-fi flick about life after a man-induced natural disaster. But the real disaster was the film, wailed the critics, pointing at its massive cost overrun and failure to meet lofty expectations.

Around that same time, for a personal but even more ambitious aquatic endeavor, Costner dumped millions of dollars into the development of a centrifuge that could separate oil and water at extremely fast speeds.

Kevin Costner in "Waterworld."

And, like “Waterworld,” it didn't exactly dazzle audiences.

“I thought gravity would fall to my door. I thought industry would rush to me, I thought the federal government who is in charge with protecting us would say, 'Yes, this is good.' It wasn't [saying that]. And $24 million [after tax] and 15 years later my equipment sat idly on the shelf,” Costner told an overflowing room in the LEED-certified Doerr-Hosier Center at the Aspen Institute yesterday.

“It was very frustrating for a private investor,” he said.

Indeed, the late 1990s were a rough ride for Costner.

But those days are gone. Now the actor is playing a heroic role in the BP oil spill that is staining the Gulf of Mexico where his machines have been put to use. As such, he was seated Monday at the Aspen Environment Forum alongside ex-Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, Robert Gagosian of Consortium for Ocean Leadership, and Elizabeth "Libby" Cheney, vice president of safety, environment, and sustainable development for Shell Oil Company.

If “Dances with Wolves” didn't tip you off, nature is near and dear to Costner's heart. The Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 tormented the actor, who painfully replayed its images over in his mind.

“I woke up out of my dream state after Exxon Valdez with the same familiar images that we've all seen: That dark pudding coming up on the shore, the requisite number of birds in awkward positions, and our own fellow citizens standing with rubber boots and pitchforks and hay,” Costner said.

Kevin Costner has the floor as former U.S. Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt watches.
Troy Hooper
“After seeing those images for so long something in me woke up. ... I said, 'Why can't we separate oil and water at high speeds?' … So I went out and got 20 engineers and scientists. We began in a small little warehouse and three years later we had a machine that stood 8 feet tall and would separate oil and water at high speeds, up to 200 gallons a minute,” Costner said proudly. Even so, the oil industry and the government gave him a cold shoulder.

The film star said he “ran up against the federal government, I ran up against the EPA and all this stuff and an industry” that said, “we're not going to have a spill.”

Costner was resolute. “Why can't we confront this? Why can't we have an overwhelming response to an accident we know is going to happen?” he asked.

At fault is the oil industry, which keeps up with technology for profitability but not for safety, he said.

“An industry that can drill through the depths of water that they do, miles into the core of the earth to get oil, somehow doesn't have the logic, the science or the will to develop machinery to clean up the spill that will actually occur?” he asked incredulously. “Had my equipment been out there [for the Gulf spill] we wouldn't have stopped this leak, but we would have fought it right at its point of impact.”

The devices are now doing just that with none other than Pat Smith, who championed Base Village in Snowmass, in place as chief operating officer of Costner's Ocean Therapy Solutions.

The actor went on to lament that oil blunders don't just impact the industrialized nations hooked on fossil fuels, but “our neighbors who share the Gulf of Mexico and are wondering if this oil is going to wash up on their beach, destroy their way of life and sour their own proverbial swimming pool.”

It's not just salt water needing protection against spills but fresh-water bodies too, he added.

Turning to Cheney, Costner said that the Marine Safety Response Corporation, funded by petroleum pushers like Shell, shouldn't be given too much power to make decisions about the natural world.

Elizabeth "Libby" Cheney, at the Aspen Environment Forum, is on the far right.
Troy Hooper
“I think it's a mistake fundamentally for MSRC to decide what would be safe and what would be an overwhelming response. I think you can weigh in because we do need the advice of experts but sometimes experts can intimidate us — 'you don't need this, that's a redundant statement.' I realize you're on the hot seat in front of everyone here representing this thing,” Costner said to Cheney, “so as a fellow human being I'm not trying to put pressure on you, but we don't need to come up to the bar of safety, we need to hurl ourselves over it. We need to have an overwhelming response the same way we would if anything is attacking us. This is in fact attacking us. ... It's about dollars [of which] the oil industry has plenty of. The fact that it's not sexy, because it's not a profit center: Safety never is a profit center.”

The speech garnered the discussion's loudest applause.

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