Monday, July 05, 2010

Deepwater Drilling: More Research Needed?

The ongoing Gulf of Mexico oil spill has led many to question the competence of both industry and government in conducting and regulating deepwater oil drilling. The perspective of Tad Patzek, chairman of the University of Texas Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering Department, is worth listening to, if for no other reason that he stands at some remove from both corporations and government institutions. On June 8, he gave prepared testimony before Congress in which he shared his thoughts about the root causes of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and what should be done to prevent such tragedies in the future.

Prof. Patzek's main point was that complex systems behave in a qualitatively different way from the simpler systems of which they are a part. He used the analogies of a watch and a frog. Given the right tools, you can take a watch apart and reassemble it, and it will work just as well as it ever did. Try the same thing with a frog, and you don't get a live frog back—you get high-school biology lab. Even such an apparently simple thing as a single-celled organism such as an amoeba is a fantastically complex interconnected system of thousands of micro-machines, chemical plants, disposal systems, data storage in the form of DNA, and so on. And just writing down the chemicals involved doesn't begin to explain the complex behavior of a living organism.

According to Prof. Patzek, the highly complex system of an offshore oil rig in deep water has moved beyond the boundary between simple, easily-understood systems (such as the plumbing in your bathroom sink) and complex systems that come up with surprising behavior that the simpler systems don't show. Unfortunately, the design and management structure of deepwater drilling, along with the technologies used, have not kept pace with the increasing complexity needed to drill in deeper waters, which is where a good deal of U. S. oil production has moved since most onshore reserves have already been exploited. Prof. Patzek says that neither the oil industry nor government funding agencies have spent much money in the last few decades on long-term research into these problems of complexity. Federal support for such research has essentially disappeared, while industry research is narrowly restricted to fields that can show an immediate short-term return: namely, exploration techniques and methods of drilling that improve rates of oil and gas recovery. While these are important and necessary, they do not fill out the big picture of what has to happen if the whole system of deepwater exploration is to function smoothly.

There are well-known analysis techniques that deal with the hazards and failure modes of complex systems. These approaches were developed in part by the space industry, where repairs are generally not possible and astronauts' lives are sometimes at stake. They are paper-and-pencil (or rather nowadays, computer-and-spreadsheet) techniques which force the analyst to imagine what will happen if this or that element in the system fails. While we don't know enough about the Deepwater Horizon failure yet to say (and Prof. Patzek calls for a thorough investigation as part of his testimony), it is possible that if these analysis methods had been applied to the system in question, they might have shown there was a problem, and how to avoid it.

But even if they had, the culture of the industry would have to change so that the results of an office worker's analysis would trump the gut feelings of the guys who are getting their fingernails dirty out on the platform in the Gulf. One of the problems that seems to have contributed to the accident is the distributed nature of command and operations. Rather than one integrated operation owned and run by one entity, large offshore oil-drilling operations are a collaboration between an oil company (BP in this case), a rig operator (TransOcean), and numerous smaller contractors, each of which runs his own little domain. While this mode of operation can work well in non-life-critical systems such as motion-picture production, the Deepwater Horizon accident may be the test case that shows this kind of management structure is inadequate either to prevent such an accident, or to deal with it quickly and efficiently once it occurs.

Not surprisingly for a professor of engineering, Prof. Patzek winds up his testimony by proposing a number of specific research projects, including one to develop a large-scale "skimmer" (system for recovering oil from the ocean surface) by converting a conventional oil tanker. None of these plans will probably be implemented in the near term, but the hope is that Congress will recognize that a vital part of our economy has been left to deteriorate in some ways, and research is needed to fix the problems. Direct Federal involvement is not necessarily the only answer, although some increase in the form of better regulation is probably needed, as Prof. Patzek admits. But a longer-term view of R&D investment on the part of oil companies would help a great deal.

One success story in this regard that might serve as an example of what to do can be drawn from the history of the U. S. semiconductor industry in the 1980s. To oversimplify, Japanese firms were eating their lunch in terms of technical advances, so the major U. S. firms got together, funded a large research effort with shared contributions and shared discoveries, and basically grabbed the football back. This required Federal cooperation in terms of allowing what would otherwise be a violation of anti-trust laws, but it was handled well and it worked out with benefits for both the industry and the general public.

Whether the very different culture of the oil business will lend itself to this kind of inter-company co-operation remains to be seen. One problem is that the U. S. no longer has the lead in terms of oil-company size. Our largest (and according to many sources, best-run) company is ExxonMobil, and it is ranked 17th in the world in terms of oil reserves. But these are still well-off outfits capable of putting some percentage of their profits into a common research foundation that could address some of the safety and accident problems that have been so vividly brought to our attention lately. To my mind, it is the least they can do, and the smartest too.

Sources: The July 4, 2010 Austin American-Statesman carried a portion of Prof. Patzek's prepared testimony, which can be found in full at

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