Rig Explosion Is A Byproduct Of Complex Systems

The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico started with an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig in April. Tad Patzek, chairman of the petroleum and geosystems engineering department at the University of Texas at Austin, tells Deborah Amos the incident was a tragedy in the making for decades.

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DEBORAH AMOS, host:

The massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was decades in the making. That's the assessment of petroleum engineer Tad Patzek. He teaches at the University of Texas. And he testified last week on Capitol Hill. Patzek didn't pull any punches.

Here's what he told Congress: Horrible things happen when complex technologies and procedures overtake humans who service them and wrongly think they're in control. Professor Patzek joins me now from member station KUT in Austin. He's here to talk about deepwater drilling.

Welcome to the program.

Professor TAD PATZEK (University of Texas): Well, thank you for having me.

AMOS: What did you want to tell Congress? Why did you start with such a dire prediction there?

Prof. PATZEK: Well, the prediction actually is not dire. We are struggling with this question, not only in deep water, but in many other areas of engineering. We have created many, many very complex systems, which are very difficult to understand and sometimes difficult to control.

AMOS: Is deepwater drilling so different from all other kinds?

Prof. PATZEK: Yes, it is, because we are drilling in a remote, harsh environment, and we are also drilling very deep wells. Some of them are 13 -15,000 feet deep below the bottom of the sea. But others may go as much as 30,000 feet. And so this deepwater environment is in fact often harsher than outer space: crushing pressures, very high temperature, and also sometimes chemical composition which causes corrosion of the wells.

AMOS: Why was the technology developed to drill so deep?

Prof. PATZEK: Well, there's a very good reason: because thats where the oil is

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. PATZEK: We have to remember that easy oil onshore has been discovered, and its production, essentially, is declining worldwide.

AMOS: Professor, how much oil does the U.S. get from deepwater wells? Can we afford to stop?

Prof. PATZEK: No, we can't. Well, we can if you want to forego driving, flying. The truth of the matter is that a third of all oil in the U.S. is produced in the Gulf of Mexico. And then, 80 percent of it is produced in deep Gulf of Mexico. And then in the deep Gulf of Mexico, most of it is now produced in over 5,000 feet of water.

AMOS: Are we at the edge of our technology? Is human understanding just not keeping up with this technology?

Prof. PATZEK: No, I wouldnt say that. From the science point of view, we do understand most of the difficulties that are there. It is their interface with humans that is not well understood. These are complex operations. They require large teams of people working together flawlessly. And in my mind, when you superimpose complexity of all the sensors, software, devices, the potential for human error is, in fact, non-negligible.

AMOS: One of your criticisms is long-term, very difficult to fix in the short-term. And that is the lack of money for research. How do you fix that in the face of this kind of disaster?

Prof. PATZEK: Well, it has been resolved in other countries in a very simple way: a small tax on gasoline can be used for research. Also, part of the lease fees can be used to support government-run research. There is no shortage of money. We could do a lot better in a hurry. But we need to kind of get started doing it.

AMOS: All of us are becoming experts in the oil industry because we're watching this every day. And there's some moment where you think has the development of the safety procedures kept pace with the technology of deepwater drilling?

Prof. PATZEK: Well, you know, most of the time it has, because the results are in. Thousands of wells have been drilled with no mishap. My suggestion is that we need to really look back at all the historical mishaps. We need to look back at procedures that have been used by the different companies, and also other industries - nuclear industry, airline industry, NASA - and then pick the best ways of avoiding accidents in the future and implement them in a smart way.

AMOS: Thank you very much.

Prof. PATZEK: Thank you very much for having me.

AMOS: Tad Patzek is chairman of the Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering Department at the University of Texas at Austin.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

You can follow the latest on the spill and many other stories online. MORNING EDITION has a Facebook page, as do I. And you can also find us at Twitter @morningedition and @nprinskeep. There's a link there now where you can find out what it's like try to keep up to 60,000 barrels of oil per day off the beach.

It's NPR News.

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