Design in a Time of Uncertainty
By Rives Taylor, Principal, Global Resilience Research Lead
Rich Haut was already a busy man before the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill on April 20, but he got a lot busier after that disaster's tragic human and environmental toll boosted the demand for his expertise in making energy production safer and cleaner.
Haut, a senior research scientist at the Houston Advanced Research Center, heads several projects aimed at securing energy for future needs, including HARC's Environmentally Friendly Drilling Systems Program.
As huge volumes of oil continued to gush into the Gulf of Mexico from the crippled BP well for months, Haut played a number of key roles in the evolving and multifaceted efforts to address and reduce the offshore risks that the incident had so dramatically highlighted.
In June, he was asked to testify before two committees of the U.S. House of Representatives, where he outlined recommendations for new scientific research aimed at achieving safer, more environmentally friendly drilling. [For details, see an earlier article in @HARC Newsletter, "HARC's Rich Haut testifies before Congress on Deepwater Horizon blowout"]
Since then, Haut's contributions to the public dialogue on the issues raised by the Gulf spill have expanded to include these influential activities:
- Speaking to one of eight forums conducted by the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE) at locations where interest in offshore oil exploration and production is particularly keen. Haut addressed the forum held in Houston on Sept. 7.
- Serving as one of five expert members of a working group that was convened by the Washington-based Bipartisan Policy Center to provide recommendations concerning the offshore moratorium. The panel's report was released Aug. 25. The Bipartisan Policy Center's advice on offshore drilling had been requested by the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling.
- Organizing and chairing a forum hosted by HARC on July 22, where more than 120 industry, academic and government experts brainstormed research and technology needs. The aim – identifying better ways to prevent spills and to recover and clean up oil spilled in deepwater accidents. The event was coordinated by HARC and the multi-member Research Partnership to Secure Energy for America (RPSEA), where Haut is a board member and chair of the Environmental Advisory Group.
Haut reflected on the broader context of his recent and continuing work to help reduce the risks involved in producing oil and gas from offshore wells:
People in the U.S. have come to believe that they have a right to a continuous and affordable supply of oil and related products, he said, but the required production activities come with "environmental tradeoffs," he said.
"Our government has projected that domestic crude oil production will increase from 5 million barrels per day in 2008 to 6.3 million barrels per day in 2027, with roughly one-third coming from the offshore Gulf of Mexico," he added.
"It is imperative that a culture of safety and a respect for the environment are foremost in the development of our energy resources. The Gulf of Mexico supplies critical ecosystem services, and we need to ensure that safety is a top priority in all oil and gas operations."
At the Houston forum convened by BOEMRE, which is the Interior Department agency that manages natural gas, oil and other mineral resource in the outer continental shelf, Haut emphasized that "culture of safety" and "safety culture" are not the same thing. "Safety culture" is a workplace term commonly used to describe how a facility or site handles safety issues.
"There is a difference between a safety culture and a culture of safety," he told the forum. "A safety culture describes the beliefs and behaviors demonstrated within an organization or during a project’s lifetime. A safety culture may be good, focused on reducing incidents and injuries, or it may be poor, tolerating at-risk behaviors that place people and the environment at risk."
"The implementation of risk management systems depend upon individuals for successful implementation. A procedure may reflect the desired intent and be detailed in its instructions.
"However, the execution of the procedure requires the actions of individuals who understand the importance of the underlying intent, who accept their responsibility for the task, and who appreciate that taking a simplifying but potentially unsafe shortcut would be wrong. Individuals must accept safety as a core value and live within a culture of safety."
The National Commission, whose deliberations were aided by the advice from Haut and his fellow members on the Bipartisan Policy Center's working group, was set up by President Barack Obama in May. The commission is examining root causes of the BP incident and developing options to prevent and mitigate future offshore spills. The commission report is due to the president in January.
The working group on which Haut served was specifically asked to address the use of drilling moratoria "as a method for mitigating future harm in the immediate aftermath of a spill." The drilling timeout ordered by Obama administration has proven to be highly controversial, particularly in places where offshore drilling is economically important.
The working group concluded that actions taken by federal officials in reaction to the BP spill "will achieve a significant ant beneficial reduction of risk," along with "an adequate margin of safety to responsibly allow the resumption of deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico."
The need for a moratorium following the BP spill illustrated "how unprepared both government and industry were for an incident of this magnitude," the panel observed.
Improved preparation for future spills was the goal of the RPSEA forum, where technology developers, scientists and researchers held discussions to identify and set priorities for research and technology development in these areas:
- Enhanced preventive technologies.
- Improved response technologies.
- Better understanding of the value of the services of ecosystems threatened by spilled oil.
Other ideas, not necessarily linked to research and technology, were traded and assessed, as well.
Afternoon sessions produced a list of suggestions for each area. The list on spill prevention, for instance, included ideas related to improved drilling equipment, better monitoring and automatic control, and integrated risk management. The spill-response list included ideas on improved source measurements, subsurface surveillance and oil skimmers.
HARC President and CEO Robert Harriss moderated the discussions that produced ideas on better valuation of ecosystem services, which is one focus of HARC's research. The ideas that emerged from that session included studying deepwater areas, coastal regions and Gulf Coast wetlands to identify high-value locations for the placement of monitoring and early-warning devices.
"Valuation of ecosystem services can furthermore be used to prioritize spending on ecosystem protection that may be deployed after a spill has occurred," according to a report issued Aug 19, which summarized the forum recommendations.
"The ability to accurately identify contaminated areas and predict where slicks, sheens or plumes will migrate can assist with the effective management of an oil spill from an asset deployment perspective and the management of communications for planning future efforts," the report added.