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IEET > Security > Eco-gov > SciTech > Life > Health > Vision > Technoprogressivism > Contributors > Andrew Maynard

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Beyond the Obvious – Lessons from the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

Andrew Maynard
By Andrew Maynard
2020 Science

Posted: Oct 29, 2010

The immediate lessons from the Deepwater Horizon disaster are pretty obvious - we (or at least somebody) messed up!  But what about the less obvious lessons, especially those concerning technology innovation and how it’s handled?

In today’s increasingly crowded, interconnected and resource-constrained world, we are more dependent on technology innovation than at any previous time in human history.  By 2050, over nine billion people will be placing unprecedented demands on the earth’s resources - a demand that will only be met through developing and using new technologies.

Yet technology innovation comes with its own challenges.  The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico provides a sobering reminder of what can go wrong when we trust in technology without investing sufficiently in the future.  Devastating as this disaster has been though, it is only one small example of the challenges we will face as a global society as resources become scarcer, demands become greater, and our technological reach threatens to exceed our ability to handle it safely.
spill from space

If a sustainable future is to be built on the effective development and use of technology innovation, we need to rethink how we reap the benefits of technology.  The full impact of the Deepwater Horizon spill will take years to evaluate.  But underlying the immediate impacts of the disaster is a story of how technology innovation failed, and the lessons that can be learned from this failure; not just so human and environmental disasters of this magnitude can be avoided in the future, but also so that we begin understand more fully how to develop and use new technologies more responsibly.

The technology being used on the Deepwater Horizon rig was at the cutting edge of innovation.  Drilling at depths of 5000 feet below the surface of the sea - far beyond the reach of direct human intervention - the operation was pushing the bounds of the possible.  Until the disaster, this was a story of technology innovation allowing us to tap previously inaccessible oil reserves.  But there is a less obvious story here - one of emerging technologies that could have been used to mitigate the impacts of the spill, if only there had been sufficient forethought and investment to develop them to the point of usability before they were needed.

As it is, the use of advanced technologies associated with the Deepwater Horizon rig failed on three counts:  The potential consequences of using an unproven technology were not explored sufficiently; there was inadequate investment in understanding, avoiding and mitigating risks upstream; and there was a lack of foresight in developing new technologies to manage the consequences of failure.  Greater foresight, investment and upstream action on each of these three counts could have helped avoid or reduce the impact of the ensuing disaster.

Given the uncertainty surrounding the drilling technology being used and the potentially severe consequences of errors, more realistic scenario planning would have helped prepare for low probability but high impact risks.  Coupled to this, more strategic research into the potential risks associated with deepwater drilling, together with greater stakeholder engagement, could have helped industry, regulators and others more effectively manage the consequences of the disaster.  And more proactive up-front investment in remediation technologies could have provided more effective tools for managing the consequences of the disaster.

This last issue sticks out like a sore thumb.  In the face of increasing global challenges, it is all too easy to latch onto the naïve assumption that technology-based solutions will present themselves as and when needed:  The belief that technology innovation will save the day is a pervasive one.  Yet as oil began gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, potential new technology-based solutions to managing the spill were conspicuous by their absence - not because the science wasn’t there, but because there had been insufficient investment in developing it into commercially viable technologies.

Technology platforms such as nanotechnology and synthetic biology for instance have the potential to support oil cleanup solutions that are significantly more effective and environmentally benign than existing ones.  But in the absence of concerted efforts to translate cutting edge science into viable commercial products, BP ended up using an established dispersant with questionable environmental and human health impacts, and uncertain consequences when introduced to an oil plume 5000 feet below the sea’s surface.

If we are to benefit from emerging technologies - to ensure that they help address pressing challenges, and do not create more problems than they solve - we clearly need to think differently about how they are developed and used.  There needs to be far greater awareness of the consequences of getting complex and far-reaching technologies wrong, a new willingness for stakeholders to work together to find sustainable solutions, and new thinking on how potential risks can be identified and addressed as early as possible in the development cycle.  Because as emerging technologies become increasingly complex and powerful, the consequences of mis-steps on public health and the environment will only become more catastrophic.

This will require better understanding of how emerging technologies can lead to unexpected impacts on human health.  And it will depend on developing a deeper appreciation of how technology innovation can be nudged along more responsible - and ultimately more sustainable and beneficial - pathways.  In effect, we need a new paradigm that places a science-based understanding of risk at the center of sustainable development.

The Risk Science Center at the University of Michigan is at the forefront of this movement toward a new risk paradigm.  By integrating cutting edge science, multi-stakeholder partnerships and effective communication, the Center is working towards avoiding harm from emerging technologies while ensuring their benefits are fully realized.  It’s an approach that will significantly reduce the chances of future adverse health impacts - but it’s also one that makes sound business sense.

Devastating as the Deepwater Horizon disaster has been, it is a timely wakeup call to the consequences getting technology innovation wrong - one that has relevance far beyond the confines of BP.  As we enter an age where we are more dependent than ever on getting technology innovation right, corporations, policy makers, policy influencers and citizens all need to be a part of a process that supports the emergence of responsible technologies.

But for this process to lead to a sustainable future, it must be built on the best possible information if it is to succeed - which means investing proactively and strategically in the science of identifying, understanding and avoiding potential risks.  The alternative is to take increasingly risky gambles with our technology-supported future.  And as any seasoned gambler knows, the house always wins - eventually.

Andrew Maynard is Director of the Risk Science Center at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.
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Andy, oil guys don’t care much what will happen after they themselves go to that great boardroom in the sky. Maybe if we can convince them they might live much longer, they might listen.

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