Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Complexity and Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill

"Tad Patzek, chairman of the Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering Department at the University of Texas, testified in Congress last month about the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. His comments included observations on broad, long-term trends in industry, government and academia; excerpts of his prepared remarks on those issues are below.

Patzek covered a range of other topics, including recommendations on specific avenues of research for improved drilling and cleanup methods."
Austin American Statesman, 7/4/10

Dr. Patzek briefed the Energy and Environment Subcommittee of the Energy and Commerce Committee on June 6, 2010

He reported, "Horrible things happen when complex technologies and procedures overtake humans, who service the technologies falsely assuming complete control.

In this briefing, I attempt to explain the blowout of the BP exploratory well in terms of complexity, technology and science. I argue that organizational structures and human behavior have not kept pace with the complex technologies we — the engineers and scientists — have created.

Given the structural changes in the industry, academia and government, this tragedy has been at least 20 years in the making. It seems that the human inability to grasp and execute the complex steps of a deepwater drilling procedure led to the tragic outcome."

This briefing is well worth reading as he introduces the concept of complexity to explain accidents in large, complicated systems of man and technology. This is an extremely important area for research and understanding.

I think his assertion that BP exploratory well Mississippi Canyon Block 252-01 is a complex system is valid, although he does not prove it so. And, without good historical data on wells of this type, it is difficult to determine what type of complex system it is.

Patzek asserts that it is a complex system with emergent properties. I doubt that this is true. I think it most likely a complex system in a critical state. I suspect its behavior is more like an earthquake (criticality) than a termite mound (emergence). (It probably has some characteristics of both as the human (intelligent agents) in the system could exhibit some characteristics of emergence.)

However, his conclusions are valid: large events like this will occur, and we can't predict when they will occur or prevent them. Understandably, he never states this as directly as I did. How can you tell that to politicians or business people? (See 1, 2, a Few, Many for more information)

Using earthquakes as an example: How do we deal with them? We build structures that will sustain their integrity through high impact, low probability events. We research the history and determine the probability of an event in different geological zones. And, while we don't have an early warning system for earthquakes, in many cases we do for tsunamis. We monitor the ocean and warn of a tsunamis presence and path.

Patzek is correct in discussing the philosophical impacts of complexity science, and how our technology has informed us, leaving us scotomas in our perception of the systems we are constructing.

It's time to start perceiving, recognizing and understanding the complex systems we live in. They are everywhere once you know what to look for.

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