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In deep water

The Energy Institute’s research team is developing a plan to promote responsible oil production in challenging, environmentally sensitive regions

June 13, 2011

What began as a postmortem on the worst oil spill in history has turned into a blueprint for safely extracting the maligned fossil fuel from some of the most challenging and environmentally sensitive regions on earth, areas that hold unequaled potential for new discoveries in oil and gas.

“The BP spill was a real wake-up call,” said Dr. Chip Groat, director of the Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy at The University of Texas at Austin.

Chip Groat
Dr. Charles “Chip” Groat is associate director of the university’s Energy Institute.

Before the oil had even stopped flowing from BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig following the April 2010 explosion, the university’s Energy Institute began assembling a team of researchers to examine what had gone wrong.

At first, the team focused on what caused the disaster, which claimed 11 lives, injured 17 others, and spewed 4.9 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The scope of work also was to include recommendations on how to restore coastal environments damaged by the spill.

But the more Groat, associate director at the Energy Institute and a professor in the Jackson School of Geosciences and Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, considered the project, the more he realized the BP spill had exposed problems and vulnerabilities that extended far beyond the Gulf.

Another Three Mile Island

“In some ways the BP spill was like Three Mile Island, in that it was a public awakening” to the risks associated with deepwater drilling, Groat said, referring to the partial core meltdown at a nuclear power plant near Harrisburg, Pa., in March 1979.

“Looking back, as we were moving out into deeper and deeper waters, we weren’t thinking about a spill –- we were focusing on how to get the job done,” he said. “It had been business as usual, but that was no longer acceptable.”

Over time, the research work plan evolved to take on a much broader and complex task – developing a series of guiding principles for oil and natural gas exploration in challenging and environmentally sensitive regions, including the potentially oil-rich Arctic.

The decision to expand the project’s scope was made easier, Groat said, when BP announced it had dedicated $500 million to clean up the Gulf and help restore coastal environments. University faculty will be involved in those efforts as well, he noted.

Multidisciplinary Approach

The new-look project — the Research Center for Environmental Protection at Hydrocarbon Energy Production Frontiers, or REEF, for short — will examine a range of science, technology and policy issues involving oil and gas production in frontier environments and will make recommendations to policymakers and regulatory agencies.

The REEF team includes faculty representing the university’s Cockrell School of Engineering, School of Law, Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, McCombs School of Business and Jackson School of Geosciences.

To further extend the project’s multidisciplinary approach, the Energy Institute has joined forces with scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Energy Initiative and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

MIT has a record of merging scientific and engineering expertise with the energy and environmental policy development, said Energy Institute Director Raymond L. Orbach.

“This partnership is a great example of how two first-class institutions can build upon each other’s strengths for the greater good,” Orbach said. “The REEF project will tackle the unique challenges of oil and gas production in sensitive areas, integrating science with policy formation.”

Oil drilling rig of the coast of Brazil
The research vessel Atlantis, owned by the U.S. Navy and operated by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), is outfitted for launching and servicing the Alvin human occupied submersible.Photo: Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, a renowned ocean science and engineering research organization based in Massachusetts, has vast expertise in deep ocean environments and coastal systems. The non-profit organization is supported by a fleet of vessels that operate in ocean areas throughout the world, including the Arctic.

“Woods Hole’s participation will enable the REEF team to investigate regions where the risk of major accidents and effects of oil spills pose the greatest threat to critical ecosystems,” Orbach said.

“We’re realists.”

Given the growing desire to slow global warming by limiting carbon emissions, drilling for oil — particularly in sensitive regions — has increasingly come under fire from environmentalists and others.

Why, then, are university researchers focusing on the further development of oil, rather than other, more sustainable sources of energy?

“Because we’re realists,” Groat said. “Every projection of energy consumption over the next 40 to 50 years indicates a continued dependence on oil. The question is, how can we safely extract and transport that oil in ways that better protect the environments in which it is found?”

Today, companies are struggling to find more oil, and are having a hard time replacing the oil they do pump. Most easily accessible oil fields were tapped long ago, while promising new regions are proving technologically and politically challenging.

Every projection of energy consumption over the next 40 to 50 years indicates a continued dependence on oil. The question is, how can we safely extract and transport that oil in ways that better protect the environments in which it is found?

– Dr. Charles “Chip” Groat
Associate Director, Energy Institute

In response, many companies are turning to deepwater exploration in remote corners of the globe, often working with state-backed oil companies in Russia, China and the Middle East that have little experience drilling in high-risk settings. Exploration also has increased in ultra-deepwater regions off the coast of West Africa, Brazil and Asia-Pacific.

Deepwater projects show great promise, but it takes several years and large sums of money to turn a prospect into a producing asset. Add to that an American public wary of further environmental damage from drilling, and the stakes couldn’t be higher.

Against that backdrop, the REEF research is vital, Groat said.

“Oil companies are developing a roadmap for exploration, and government regulators need to know that they’re putting in place the proper conditions for safety and environmental protection,” he said.

Above the Arctic Circle

In addition to exploring deepwater regions, oil companies are seeking permission to drill in the Arctic basin, a region that is believed to have tremendous potential. In the near future, drilling will begin off the coasts of Norway, Russia, Canada and Alaska.

“The Arctic is the largest untapped area for oil exploration in the world,” Groat said.

School of Law Professor Melinda Taylor, a member of the REEF team, said development of Arctic presents an opportunity for the U.S. to help influence how exploration in that region will occur.

Oil drilling rig of the coast of Brazil
Oil drilling rig off the coast of Brazil.Photo: ©iStock/Carlo Leopoldo Francini

“There’s going to activity in the Arctic whether the U.S. participates or not,” Taylor said. “We have an opportunity to lead, and to make it as safe and environmentally responsible as possible.”

Taylor, senior lecturer and executive director at the Center for Global Energy, International Arbitration and Environmental Law, said that in addition to analyzing the special challenges of drilling in the Arctic and in ultra-deepwater regions, the team will identify varying approaches for managing the risks and concerns unique to exploration in those areas.

For example, government regulators in some countries require operators not only to comply with minimum standards, but also to provide a “safety case” that reflects special conditions found in those sensitive environments.

“This is not about creating onerous regulations,” Taylor said. “We want to facilitate production, but in a way that ensures safety and provides environmental protection.”

Researchers also will develop guidelines for transporting oil once it has been extracted, which has been aided by global warming, since waterways used to bring rigs and other equipment in and out of the region remain open for longer periods.

The REEF team also will develop recommendations for the appropriate organizational structures needed to manage the complex operations implicit in deepwater drilling.

Finally, researchers will analyze plans for marshalling the resources necessary to rapidly respond to deepwater oil spills.

“We’ll analyze what has been learned and what can be done better following a spill,” Groat said. “How to cap it, clean it up and deal with it quickly in order to minimize damage.”

The Role of University Research

Groat understands the REEF team’s work may face criticism because it comes from a university in Texas, a state known for its historic ties to the oil and gas industry.

Drilling a 5,000-foot well in West Texas is easy. Drilling through 10,000 feet of icy, frigid Arctic waters is another. We want to make sure it’s done right.

– Dr. Charles “Chip” Groat
Associate Director, Energy Institute

“We can’t be nervous about talking to a certain sector because it might cast a shadow on this study,” Groat said. “Our job is to get a complete view.”

Researchers will talk to oil and gas companies involved in drilling, Groat said, along with representatives of environmental organizations, federal and international agencies, and others.

Universities are uniquely positioned to lead this type of research, he added, because their livelihood is not directly tied to findings. That said, the Energy Institute will seek energy industry backing for the project.

“We’ll be looking at industry support, of course, because they’re the ones out there doing the exploring,” Groat said. “But they’re buying into the approach we’re taking, not buying the results. They have to be willing to accept what we come up with, or they won’t be involved.”

Oil and gas exploration in deepwater and other frontier environments is going to happen one way or another, Groat said.

“Drilling a 5,000-foot well in West Texas is easy. Drilling through 10,000 feet of icy, frigid Arctic waters is another thing altogether. We want to help make sure it’s done right.”

For more information, contact: Gary Rasp, Energy Institute, 512 471 5669;
Photo of Dr. Chip Groat: Christina Murrey

On the banner: A bird's eye view of deepwater drilling. Photo: ©iStock/mike euk