Op-Ed: Too Much Oil, Not Enough Engineering

Gulf of Mexico disaster brings energy problems to forefront

Geoffrey Orsak

 Geoffrey C. Orsak

When I traveled to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in 1986 to interview for a job, the potential for adventure looked big: I had dreams of being part of the cutting edge of science and engineering, exploring frontiers previously imagined only in science-fiction movies.

What I got instead was a deep dive into “reliability engineering.” As far as I could see, there were smart young engineers whose primary job was to design multiple redundancies into every critical space system. Why so many people working on something as seemingly mundane as reliability? The answer they gave me was simple and obvious, “It’s really hard to repair anything in space.” 

So almost 25 years later, British Petroleum found itself struggling to plug a catastrophic oil leak 5,000 feet below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico. But as I write this, some two months after the initial explosion, there is still no reliable solution to stop the leak or address the vast ecological challenge facing the gulf coast. As the questions swirled about poor engineering, manufacturing, installation and maintenance, the importance of that “reliability engineering” job came into focus. I was aghast when credible news sources reported that one BP scenario called for plugging the well with golf balls and rubber tire shards. The Titleist solution? Seems like something that an executive would think up, not an engineer.

The energy industry has invested vast amounts of research funding into rigs capable of reaching oil and
gas through 10,000 feet of water and 30,000 feet of sea bed. These are true engineering marvels, designed
by some of the most sophisticated technologists and scientists working today. So why were these folks
talking about golf balls?

Until we develop a new source of energy, we are going to be drilling for oil in places that make repairs really hard. The Obama Administration must bring a “failure is not an option” mentality to deep water drilling. Companies extracting value from our earth have a responsibility to invest some of this value into increasing the reliability of these complex systems. And because no engineered system is ever foolproof,
we better have a good back-up plan when oil is released into the environment.

Clearly, oil cleanup has been a low national priority. Very little meaningful progress has been made since the Exxon Valdez disaster 20 years ago. The Congressional Research Service reports that federal funding for oil spill research declined by half since 1993, falling to approximately $8 million in 2008. Where is the government risk analysis for this trillion-dollar industry? It is just so easy to get complacent when things are
going well, but that is just when problems tend to arise.

“Apollo 13” stands as one of the all-time great engineering movies. It’s shocking how closely the story line parallels the BP leak — a major engineering disaster dominating the nightly national news. One of my favorite exchanges in the film gets to the heart of the matter: NASA Director: “This could be the worst disaster NASA’s ever experienced.” Gene Kranz (Flight Director): “With all due respect, sir, I believe this is going to be our finest hour.” Apollo 13 ended in triumph for both the astronauts and engineers at NASA. The story in the Gulf of Mexico cannot end well for BP or the federal government. There’s just too much oil.

Geoffrey C. Orsak is dean of the Southern Methodist University Lyle School of Engineering. He can be reached at dean@lyle.smu.edu .