Going Deep … UH Institute Safeguards Offshore Energy Efforts

By Jeannie Kever

One of the most chilling assessments in the reams of reports that have followed the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico came this summer, when investigators for the Chemical Safety Board said it could happen again. With energy companies moving to more challenging environments to explore and produce hydrocarbons over the next decades, the challenges and risks continue to grow.

The Subsea Systems Institute is designed to lower the risk.

The institute, led by the University of Houston, will be a go-between for industry and government regulators, testing and validating equipment, setting safety standards and other best practices, developing new materials and science-based policies, as well as overseeing workforce training. Rice University and the Johnson Space Center are also involved.

Federal regulators have promised more oversight since the oil spill. Brian Salerno, director of the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, the top offshore regulator, told an audience at the Offshore Technology Conference in Houston last spring that safety is more crucial than ever because the BP oil spill made Americans wary of expanding drilling in the Atlantic and Alaskan Arctic.

Ensuring Safety

Ramanan Krishnamoorti, chief energy officer for UH, said a neutral third party operating as a public-private partnership can ensure that technologies needed for safe and environmentally responsible operations in such an environment are tested and validated, and that policies required for a decreased risk of failure a re developed and implemented.

The Institute could certify that the most effective safety regulations and standards are developed and shared with industry, building upon previously established relationships.

UH began building those relationships years ago, working with industry on research and offering workforce training. It restarted the University’s undergraduate petroleum engineering program in 2009 and a master’s program in subsea engineering in 2013, both at the urging of industry. The UH Energy advisory board is filled with executives from global energy companies, most of them based in Houston.

Partners with UT, A&M

Last fall, UH joined with Texas A&M University and The University of Texas at Austin to form the Ocean Energy Safety Institute, a five-year, $5 million collaborative created by the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement to provide both government regulators and industry with the latest safety information about offshore drilling.

The Subsea Systems Institute will go beyond that, Krishnamoorti said, not only setting safety standards but also offering testing of equipment and conducting research to promote safety and efficiency in the ultra-deep Gulf of Mexico and the Alaskan Arctic. In those deep waters high pressure and high temperature pose technical challenges members of the partnership are well-suited to address. It also will oversee workforce training programs, both through community colleges and area universities.

Darrin Hall, executive director of governmental relations at UH, said some research could focus on reasons for safety equipment failures, to reduce future failure rates.

“You always should have a plan if a spill occurs, but what if a spill never happens?” he asked. “You should always have a remediation plan, but what if you could avoid it?”

Much of the testing and related research will be conducted at labs that will be built at the UH Energy Research Park, just a few miles from the main campus. Each of the three partners brings special expertise: In addition to its subsea engineering program, UH has master’s engineering degree programs in well design and well completion, along with expertise in offshore composites, superconductivity and safety protocols, including a graduate certificate course in upstream energy safety that will start in January.

Rice University offers expertise in nanotechnology and materials corrosion, computational science, energy policy and visualization and imaging. NASA’s Johnson Space Center has additional testing facilities, including the neutral buoyancy labs, remotely operated vehicles, and expertise in risk assessment and in high pressure-high temperature materials.

Unique in the U.S.

The Institute will be unique in the United States, formed in response both to the catastrophic Gulf oil spill that continues to play out in courtrooms and across Gulf shores and wetlands, and to the relentless push by energy companies to move forward.

Krishnamoorti said while the Institute is geographically near the Gulf of Mexico, which accounts for about 23 percent of all crude oil produced in the United States, it also will work with companies exploring in the Alaskan Arctic and the North Sea.

The Institute, which hasn’t yet received funding, is modeled in part on a similar project in Bergen, Norway, where drilling in the North Sea has spawned world-renowned technology centers in conjunction with Bergen University College. The subsea engineering program there is affiliated with the program at UH, which began offering a graduate certificate in 2011 and a master’s degree less than two years later.

The UH program joined with Bergen and those at the National University of Singapore, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil and Curtin University in Perth, Australia, to form the International Subsea Engineering Research Institute earlier this year. That will allow the group to provide “one-stop shopping” for companies looking for institutions to provide testing or research in specific areas, said Matthew Franchek, founding director of the UH subsea engineering program and director of the international research institute.

Like the testing facility in Bergen – which Krishnamoorti said has a 2 1/2 year waiting period for its testing facilities – the planned facility in Houston will take advantage of geography: With more than 3,600 oil and gas companies in the metropolitan area and an estimated statewide economic impact of $308 billion, Houston is an obvious choice, Krishnamoorti said.

“A center focused on prevention is the right thing to do,” he said. “A center in Houston is the right place to do it, and UH, Rice and NASA is the right team.”

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With energy companies moving to more challenging environments to explore and produce hydrocarbons over the next decades, the challenges and risks continue to grow.