The Role of American Universities
in Large Disaster Management
American universities and scientists have played leading roles in large-scale challenges or disasters facing the nation throughout our national history. During World War II, MIT led major efforts, such as the development of radar, which gave the allies a major advantage in the war with the axis powers. More recently, American universities and scientists developed effective tools for managing nuclear reactor safety, and even during the ill-fated and largely mismanaged Katrina disaster there was a determined and active involvement by American universities and scientists. (The U.S. Senate [Senator S. Collins, for example] called on MIT to study and report on the cause of failure of the New Orleans levees and ways to assure future safety of the dikes [Professor Ernst Frankel’s report to the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Disaster Management].)
It is curious and unfortunate that during and after the largest environmental disaster, the BP Deepwater Horizon spill, neither the government nor BP sought active advice and/or help from renowned, experienced, and readily available ocean engineering and science experts in American universities. Nor did they at any time take advantage of any of the tools and facilities available and offered to them.
For example, MIT/Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s deep diving manned (three-crew) submarine, the Alvin, was in the area on its way to San Diego at the time and has robotic arms and a long endurance. It could have helped to investigate the blow out preventer failure. Yet, though offered, it was not used.
Four months after the BP spill, the largest environmental disaster in American and possibly human history, the well is finally capped, but controversies continue. The millions of tons (not barrels or gallons) of oil that were discharged are still there, although they are submerged in a huge underwater cloud. Millions of gallons of poisonous dispersants and other liquids were used to sink the oil and in the process introduce further danger to ocean life and fauna. Much of this mess may stay there for decades and not just decimate Gulf waters, but slowly filter around the South Florida Keys into the Atlantic and up the U.S. East Coast.
It is now evident that this disaster was the result of lack of oversight, lax enforcement, as well as gross mismanagement by the operators. Many warning signs were there, but safety suggestions were overridden to save time and money. The blow out preventer failed and subsequent tests, required by law, were not performed. Even more shamefully, advice, offers of assistance and equipment made after the disaster were not accepted, although many of them could and probably would have greatly reduced the oil pollution.
Although many experienced ocean engineers and scientists from MIT/Woods Hole offered advice and help, it is curious or unfortunate that neither BP nor any branch of the U.S. government sought or accepted advice from the many renowned academic and research institutions in ocean engineering/science in the U.S.
In fact, some of us who aggressively offered advice through various channels such as the Coast Guard, Congress, White House czars, and BP received form letter replies, if any reply at all.
This is shameful, particularly as BP and its supporters showed early in the event that their main interest was not to solve the problem but to downplay it. We calculated the outflow two days after the explosion simply from data such as riser diameter, oil viscosity, and pressure, and came up with an estimated daily outflow of 60,000-80,000 barrels per day, when BP and the government insisted that the outflow was a bare 500-1,000 barrels per day just a few days after the explosion. We similarly advised that the so-called 100-ton top head dome with a top outflow pipe would not work, since gas would collect on top and crystallize, clogging the outlet. In fact, we proposed to insert a gas separator such as a smaller dome with a separate gas extraction pipe inside and let the oil flow out from under the small dome into the surrounding space to be extracted by a pipe about halfway up the larger dome height.
None of these or subsequent suggestions were considered. Later, when it became evident that none of the capping solutions worked, and even after insertion of a take-up pipe into the riser that captured 10,000-15,000 barrels/day, a much larger volume of oil continued to escape into the sea. Early on, we suggested the chartering of a number of very large tankers and sub-surface, high capacity suction equipment to suck up and load much of the highly concentrated oily water at the spill site of these tankers. In fact, we mobilized a major tanker company with about a dozen Aframax tankers home ported in Galveston (a few hours sailing distance from the spill site) to offer the use of their tankers; this to capture as much of the oil at the site at comparatively low costs compared with the cost of collecting it on the beaches and marshes of the Gulf Coast. None of these offers were accepted or even considered, even though this approach had been very successfully used in a large spill in Saudi Arabia.
We now face what has become the world’s – not America’s – largest environmental disaster ever, with economic, environmental, and social costs that are, in my opinion, immeasurable. Before long we will not only have to deal with coastal cleanup, idle fishermen, and empty resorts, but rolling shutdowns of electric power plants, slow steaming ships, and a sub-surface oil cloud which will float from the Mexican Gulf around the Florida Keys up the U.S. East Coast and then be driven by the Gulf Stream over the rich Georges Bank toward the English Channel and the North Sea, where it will finally hit home for BP. Not only will the $20 billion currently budgeted to pay for this disaster be woefully inadequate, but the international and legal implications will impact the world for decades to come, as countries impacted by the spill, such as Cuba, Jamaica, the Bahamas, Bermuda, Portugal, Spain, and later France and even the U.K., charge us, the U.S., with willful negligence for letting it happen and not taking decisive action to minimize the effects. To me, at least, it is not only inexplicable but simply highly irresponsible that none of the decision makers approached used the readily available and freely offered advice of world renowned ocean engineering/scientists instead of blindly trusting BP, the perpetrator, to deal with the problem.
Unlike the Katrina disaster, this was completely man-made and required an even more focused and determined approach. While many advised the Obama administration to stand aside so that it would not own the problem, I must say that I am afraid this disaster will be the major legacy of the Obama administration. Finally, I would say that I would have expected a more assertive approach by American academic and research establishments. It is not too late to help reduce the long-term impact of this disaster, but actions will have to be more aggressive.
While BP may not be alone in underestimating the probabilities of a low risk, large damage event, they have a long history of putting profit ahead of risk reduction and safety and were unfortunately aided by the lack of effective supervision and control. BP underestimated risks in several other cases in the recent past, such as the breakage of a corroded oil pipeline in Alaska and an explosion at their Texas refinery in 2005 that killed 15 workers. In fact, BP is known to take safety risks to save money and increase profits.
It is increasingly important that experts from academia and other independent engineers/scientists be involved in helping to ameliorate the effects of large disasters, assure effective emergency response management, and honest/true evaluation of both the reasons and effects of a disaster.
With the experience of FEMA during and after Katrina, and now with the BP disaster, we can no longer just sit on the sidelines and observe and comment on these developments. I believe, as independent academics, we have a responsibility to assist in the amelioration of disasters and then offer independent expert views on what has happened, why it has happened, and how to prevent its recurrence. We cannot just sit idly by and let things happen, particularly if we are aware or believe that there is a coverup or disaster mismanagement.