Drilling Down

A new book by PGE Department Chair Tad Patzek explains the events that led up to the worst environmental catastrophe in U.S. history, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

A new book by Department of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering Department Chair Tad Patzek details the real causal factors leading up to the worst environmental catastrophe in U.S. history.

A new book by Department of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering Department Chair Tad Patzek details the real causal factors leading up to the worst environmental catastrophe in U.S. history.

The Deepwater Horizon Spill was caused not by one singular error, but a series of miscommunications and mismanagement from all parties and at all levels, according to a new book released this month by Department of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering Department Chair Tad Patzek.

The book, "Drilling Down: The Gulf Oil Debacle and Our Energy Dilemma," explains the real causal factors leading up to the worst environmental catastrophe in U.S. history and uses the spill as a backdrop to explain the energy-complexity spiral that governs modern life.

Co-written with Joseph A. Tainter, author of "The Collapse of Complex Societies" and one of the foremost social commentators, the book details how the availability of cheap and abundant energy has allowed civilization to solve some problems while creating new ones. Maintaining the current high standard of living is difficult, and doing so requires greater reliance on hard-to-extract oil like that in the Gulf of Mexico, which is 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."

A world expert on oil technology, Patzek was called upon after the April 2010 BP oil rig explosion and unprecedented loss of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Just days after the accident, he met with top-level BP officials and a group of industry and academic experts to explore options to stop the oil flow from the blow out. He briefed Congress on what led to the incident and was also 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.

Patzek drew off of these experiences and others to write the book.

He said the spill was a "defining moment" that forever changed the industrial practice of drilling and operating offshore. The spill shook 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 discipline.

"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 www.springer.com.

About the authors:

Joseph A. Tainter is Professor of Sustainability in the Department of Environment and Society at Utah State University. Tainter worked on issues of sustainability before the term became common, and wrote the highly acclaimed book "The Collapse of Complex Societies." His current research focuses on sustainability, energy and innovation.

Tad Patzek is the Lois K. and Richard D. Folger Leadership Professor and Chairman of the Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering Department at The University of Texas at Austin. Patzek's current research involves mathematical and numerical modeling of earth systems with emphasis on fluid flow in the subsurface soils and rocks. He briefed Congress on the BP Deepwater Horizon well disaster in the Gulf, and was a frequent guest on NPR, ABC, BBC, CNN and CBS programs.

In the News

Tad Patzek was called upon for months following the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Here are just a few of the stories where his comments appeared.