Not one error but a series of miscommunications and mismanagement from all parties at all levels caused the Deepwater Horizon disaster, aggravated by the world's relentless demand for energy, according to a new book released by Tad Patzek, chair of the Department of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin, and co-author Joseph A. Tainter, a professor in the Department of Environment and Society at Utah State University.
The book, "Drilling Down: The Gulf Oil Debacle and Our Energy Dilemma," explains the factors leading up to the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history and uses the spill as a backdrop to explain the energy-complexity spiral that governs modern life.
The availability of cheap and abundant energy, argue the authors, has allowed civilization to solve some problems while creating new ones. Quenching the ever-growing global thirst for oil requires greater reliance on hard-to-extract oil such as that in the Gulf of Mexico, found in increasingly smaller or deeper reservoirs. Because extraction is more complex, the risks associated with it also increase and are difficult to foresee.
"It's hardly surprising in such a complicated system that so many missteps were made, and so we need to think really hard to lessen the number of missteps in the future," Patzek said. "In the future, if we keep on our current course, we'll need even more energy. In the book, we're asking whether this future is possible. We're trying to look at the connection between the here and now, and the future."
Through his research for the book, Patzek said he was surprised by how challenging it is for society to divorce itself from easily available energy. It's difficult for many, for instance, to realize how dependent society is on fossil fuels because they play such a vital role in everyday life and have traditionally been easy and cheap to extract.
"A fish would be the last to notice her nose is wet because she lives in the water," Patzek said, citing a point in the book. "We're the last ones to notice the extraordinary circumstances in which we live."
Patzek drew from his professional experiences to write the book. Just days after the April 2010 BP rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, he was called to meet with BP officials and a group of industry and academic experts to explore options to stop the oil flow from the blowout. He briefed Congress on what led to the incident and was appointed to a 15-member national advisory committee charged with providing guidance to the federal government on how to improve offshore drilling safety, well containment and spill response as the U.S. explores new energy frontiers.
He said the spill was a "defining moment" that forever changed the industrial practice of drilling and operating offshore. The spill shook the industry and the federal government, and also brought energy to the forefront of public consciousness including scientists and engineers outside of petroleum engineering, who had often disregarded energy-related research because it didn't relate to their specific disciplines.
"Many people have finally made the connection between their own fate and the need for cheap and reliable energy," Patzek said.
Since the spill, offshore engineering has improved and new drilling and safety equipment has been designed and deployed for offshore applications. Industry officials are also much better prepared to handle a future misstep.
"But they are also acutely aware that there should not be any missteps because the consequences of such are so daunting they can actually put large ecosystems out of commission and very large companies out of business," he said.
The book is available at Amazon.com.