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February 2011 Issue

Post-Macondo Innovation: Will it be Radical?
By Dr. Tanya M. Vernon
Recently, when I attended the American Society of Mechanical Engineers Annual Meeting in Vancouver, Canada, a reliability engineer for the new composite materials Boeing 787 queried "So, we add multiple computer control systems to larger and larger aircraft like the A380 and the result is a more efficient, reliable and safer aircraft?"

We looked into our beer glasses. As engineers and scientists, technocrats of the 21st millennium, our hearts wished to answer "yes," but our minds knew that computers add degrees—magnitudes even—of complexity to what once were simple mechanical flight systems. Simply adding features to a design is not true innovation.

Innovation in aviation is towed along by military or commercial applications. But then, the Federal Aviation Administration has regulated all civil aviation for more than 50 years.

Some questions come to mind. What does innovation look like? What is the relationship between innovation and increasing bureaucracy? What happens when increasing regulation is interwoven with economic decline?

Offshore technology has come a long way in the last few decades, as new materials and designs, automated systems and communications are upgraded so drilling can go deeper, colder and longer, all while proceeding more efficiently and safely than decades ago. But the fact of the matter is that the oil industry has not shown much more radical innovation than the aviation industry.

Technology associated with offshore oil production has proceeded at an incremental pace since the first quarter of the 20th century, when the U.S. exceeded Russia in the production of crude. The basic processes were and still are to drill, install the wellhead and collect oil. Drilling has become more sophisticated, particularly in offshore marine operations, where challenges of depth, remoteness and separations has led to tweaks in technology. Also, wellhead systems have evolved to include drilling fluids (mud), casings and blowout preventers&mdsah;oil well "anatomy" that many had never heard of until May 2010. If scale alone is novel, then oil collection and storage facilities, like aircraft, have gotten bigger and control systems smaller.

But revolutionary scientific innovation requires drastic changes in scientific thinking, followed by subsequent cultural and societal shifts. The PC was a revolutionary innovation that was followed by the Internet, which is itself more evolutionary than revolutionary, but nonetheless provided changes in culture and society far beyond the original academic and military targets.

Discussions about science, technology and innovation are brought to bear when considering the disaster of Mississippi Canyon 252, or Macondo, and the release of 780 million liters of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico from April 20 to July 15, 2010. What failed initially in the days preceding the blowout and subsequently in efforts to quell the 53,000-barrel-a-day release? Where were the technocrats when we needed them?

When I read in oil and gas industry journals that "research aims to develop algorithms to predict" or "adaptive modeling suggests," I sense the perpetuation of incremental innovation, but I don't envisage these advances as radical engineering or science that has the potential to change the way energy is produced or used.

To muddle matters more, marine offshore management systems have increased in complexity in the post-war decades. The reasons for this are many, including greater national and global regulation of offshore safe vessel operation with the establishment of the U.S. Coast Guard, the International Maritime Organization and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration; mandated safety and spill prevention resulting from Piper Alpha and Exxon Valdez; and the promotion of consensus standards by trade associations such as the Association of Diving Contractors International, the International Marine Contractors Association and the former Minerals Management Service (MMS), to name just a few.

Today, vessels involved in offshore marine construction, maintenance, inspection and repair must integrate a myriad of systems, regulations, best practices, client and corporate requirements, and consensus standards. But what is truly needed to revolutionize the offshore industry is radical innovation in the way systems, policies and practices integrate with offshore management of resources.

In the wake of Macondo, the U.S. government has reorganized the MMS, introduced changes in permitting and is likely to introduce additional workforce safety reforms, mandate changes in subsea equipment and require third-party verification of compliance. Michael Bromwich, director of the newly formed U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement recently noted: "Government, industry and the best minds in our universities must collaborate on ongoing research and development to create cutting-edge technologies."

The new legislation may have engineers and scientists running to their simulation software, but I doubt it. Legislative-driven research endeavors typically morph into the bureaucratic visage from which they are conceived, effectively stifling the very innovation they sought to nurture. Research funding in industry will continue to dwindle due both to a slack economy and reallocation of funding to compliance. Scientists and engineers will effectively be designed out of the system as these technocrats look for places that offer greater research freedom and a promise of a publishable or development outcome. The effect of this will be a depression technocracy—where economically depleted countries with barren research landscapes look to fewer scientists and engineers for greater, more radical technology. It is from these ashes that the phoenix of innovation in energy generation may rise.

Dr. Tanya M. Vernon is a compliance manager at Veolia Environmental Services, Special Services Inc. A newcomer to the offshore maintenance, inspection and repair service industry, Veolia aims to deliver integrated solutions for global energy initiatives.


2012:  JAN | FEB | MARCH | APRIL | MAY | JUNE | JULY | AUG | SEPT | OCT | NOV | DEC
2011:  JAN | FEB | MARCH | APRIL | MAY | JUNE | JULY | AUG | SEPT | OCT | NOV | DEC

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Sea Technology is read worldwide in more than 110 countries by management, engineers, scientists and technical personnel working in industry, government and educational research institutions. Readers are involved with oceanographic research, fisheries management, offshore oil and gas exploration and production, undersea defense including antisubmarine warfare, ocean mining and commercial diving.