Lessons from Deepwater Horizon

Lessons from Deepwater Horizon

Beyond the Obvious: Lessons from Deepwater Horizon is an op-ed essay by Andrew D. Maynard, the director of UM's Risk Science Center. A physicist by training, he has many years' experience in occupational health research, science policy, and the responsible development of emerging technologies. Most recently he was the chief science advisor to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Maynard, the Charles and Rita Gelman Risk Science Professor at SPH, blogs at 2020 Science.

While the full impact of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill will take years to evaluate, we can even now draw important lessons from this catastrophe. And it's critical that we do so—not just so that human and environmental disasters of this magnitude can be avoided in the future, but also so that we can begin to understand more fully how to develop and use new technologies more responsibly.

Until the disaster, Deepwater Horizon was a story of technology innovation allowing us to tap previously inaccessible oil reserves. But the use of this technological wizardry 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.

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 with 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 those consequences.

This last issue sticks out like a sore thumb. 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 them into commercially viable technologies. 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 5,000 feet below the sea's surface.

If we are to benefit from emerging technologies—to ensure that they help address pressing challenges and not create more problems than they solve—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 missteps on public health and the environment will only become more catastrophic.

In effect, we need a new paradigm that places a science-based understanding of risk at the center of sustainable development.

The UM Risk Science Center is at the forefront of this movement to create such a paradigm. By integrating cutting-edge science, multistakeholder partnerships, and effective communication, the center is working towards avoiding harm from emerging technologies while ensuring that 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.

As we enter an age where we are more dependent than ever on getting technology innovation right, corporations, policymakers, policy influencers, and citizens all need to be a part of a process that supports the emergence of responsible technologies. For this process to lead to a sustainable future, it must be built on the best possible information—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.

The UM Risk Science Center has launched a regularly updated web service dedicated to aggregating news and other information relevant to potential health impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.