Professor appointed to ocean safety team after oil spill in Gulf

Amy Thornton

A UT professor will serve on the newly-formed Ocean Energy Safety Advisory Committee, a federal advisory body created to improve offshore drilling safety, well containment and spill response.

After last year’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Ted Patzek, chair of the Department of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering, was called to appear as an expert in front of the Congressional committee in charge of investigating the incident. He said he partly attributes his testimony about the causes and mitigation of the spill’s effects to his committee appointment.

“This committee was formed after the realization that the industry was not prepared to deal with spills,” Patzek said. “We will be advising the Department of the Interior about how to safely drill in an offshore environment, how to contain spills should they ever happen and, even better, how to prevent spills from even happening.”

The committee consists of 15 experts representing academia, federal agencies, the offshore oil and gas industry and environmental groups.

“My hope is that working with both sides will enable both sides to do a better job and reach a consensus,” Patzek said. “I hope that getting such a powerful group of people together in a room to talk about these procedures will help everybody.”

The committee will enable the government to speed up the permitting process and make sure that the wells are being permitted in a safe manner, Patzek said.

“This is a complicated situation,” Patzek said. “The Gulf of Mexico provides about a third of oil in the U.S., so there is enormous pressure to speed up the permitting process, both from the drilling companies who are going bankrupt and the overall need for oil.”

John Ekerdt, associate dean in the Cockrell School of Engineering, said the findings of the committee could potentially impact policy and regulation of the industry.

“We are always honored when one of our faculty are invited to serve on these prestigious boards, and it’s important for them to bring the thought leaders from various academic communities since they are independent and without a position,” Ekerdt said.

The appointment is a two-year commitment and will require Patzek to travel to Washington, D.C., monthly for committee meetings and workshops.

“This appointment is reflective of what kind of an engineering department we have,” said petroleum engineering senior Sarah Hatley. “It’s exciting to have professors who are the best in their field and are being recognized in the academic world and by government officials.”