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Conversation with Jonathan Katz, Wash U scientist consulting with engineers on oil spill

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 14, 2010 - The announcement that BP is attempting a new method for containing its leaking oil well in the Gulf of Mexico squares with Washington University Professor Jonathan I. Katz's firsthand observations that engineers are pursuing multiple solutions to curb the gushing crude.

Following last week's failed attempt to place a containment dome over the leak, the new plan calls for undersea robots to thread a six-inch tube into the jagged opening of the leaking 21-inch pipe, and then surround the tube with a stopper. The oil would be siphoned into an oil tanker above. Read more on this attempt. 

Katz was back in St. Louis Thursday afternoon after a whirlwind trip to Houston with a team of scientists assembled by the federal government to advise the engineers attempting to plug the blown-out Deepwater Horizon well. Since the drilling platform exploded on April 20, an estimated 4 million gallons of oil have leaked into the waters off the coast of Louisiana -- a spreading environmental mess that threatens wildlife and the economic livelihood of coastal communities.

Katz, an astrophysicist, was among the outside experts asked by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Energy Secretary Steven Chu to confer with oil industry engineers trying to harness the gusher that is nearly a mile beneath the water's surface. After sitting in on sessions with the industry and Department of Energy engineers, Katz expressed confidence in their ability to solve the problem.

"Anyone working on a problem like this pursues several different methods because you never know which is going to work and which isn't," Katz said. "It's common sense that unless you know that something is going to work, you plan for the contingency in which it doesn't. That's nothing specific to this particular problem or operation. You bring out all your resources to deal with the consequences."



Katz got the call to travel to Houston on Tuesday as he prepared to proctor a final exam for his students. He spent Wednesday in Houston and returned Thursday to turn in final grades. He said it was an honor to be selected for the panel, and he learned a lot, though he isn't sure how or why he was selected to participate.

"It's often a matter of someone who knows someone who knows someone who makes a recommendation," Katz said. "That's just human nature. How else do you know who might have something to offer? Basically, by knowing people who know people who know what their skills are."

Here are other excerpts from the Beacon's interview with Katz:

As a physicist, what skill set did you bring to the table?

Katz: That's an interesting question. Maybe because I've done all sorts of applied things on the border between physics and engineering. That's my guess. My long-term academic work would obviously be irrelevant to this. I'm not a petroleum engineer by any means. I'm not an engineer at all. I'm a professor of physics. My degrees are in astronomy and space science, but I've done a lot of applied physics work for quite a number of organizations over the years, and someone must have thought I had something to offer.

How did this conference work? Were you briefed by the BP engineers while you were in Houston?

Katz: We actually sat in on what they were doing. We looked over their shoulders, then we sat around the table and talked about various options. These people are working very hard in crisis mode and they didn't have time to give us briefings, and that was a very sensible choice on their part.

Some things we were shown were clearly confidential, and that's why I'm not going to go into any specifics. But they appear to someone who is something of an outsider to be quite solid technical people.

The BP and the DOE people are working very hard, and several other companies are involved. Although BP owns the well, one contractor did the drilling and another contractor provided the blowout preventer. Like most of these things, it's a major collaboration.

I was honored to be invited and enjoyed the experience. Did I have anything much to contribute? I think I have some ideas for how to prevent this kind of thing from happening in the future, but I don't have anything very specific to offer on the present problems. It is very much in the hands of the real pros.

Had you been following the oil spill story? Was this something you had a particular interest in?

Katz: I had been following the crisis at the level of a newspaper reader. The only information I had was all that was available to anyone who wasn't an insider.

And when I say that some of what I heard is confidential, there was nothing dark or hidden, it was simply the technical details. Exactly what you're doing and exactly when you think you're going to know if it's going to work. It's not like exploration where there could be a certain competitive value, but people need to work with a certain degree of privacy. It's not like they're concealing anything, but they've got to work on the problem and not have half-informed people calling them up all the time and telling them how they think they ought to do this.

While the engineers work out the science of stopping the oil leak, it is hard for the general public to be patient. Watching the video of that crude spewing unchecked from that pipe is alarming. (Click here to see video from BP showing the gusher.)

Katz: It's definitely not a good thing. That's why they have these massive things called blowout preventers on every well -- not just undersea but on land, too -- on every well you drill. And almost always they work. No one wants to have a gusher. People don't want to spill the stuff, and they don't want to waste the stuff. When it spills out on land it's a fire hazard. In this case it was a fire hazard when the gas came up to the surface and ignited.

The industry tries very hard to keep it from happening, and they almost always succeed. There is going to be a lot of finger pointing about why they failed this time. The finger pointing is not a constructive exercise. Yes, it's got to be done. Someone has to figure out who pays for what. But the constructive exercise is trying to improve the technology so it doesn't happen again.

Even though it failed to stop the leak, just the lowering of that containment dome appeared to require an impressive amount of engineering ability.

Katz: It was amazing. You're almost a mile under the sea and these remotely operated vehicles are chugging around doing what you need to do. And you're able to put something down within the accuracy of a few feet under a mile of water you can't see through. This was really impressive.

What was the point of bringing in this team of experts?

Katz: It's always good to bring in someone -- assuming you don't get in the way of the people actually trying to do the work -- it's good to bring in outsiders who are knowledgeable about general technical problems but have a somewhat different perspective. Doctors do it. You've got a difficult diagnosis; you get a second or third opinion.

From your perspective, will the engineers find a solution any time soon?

Katz: Every time anyone's had a problem like this in the past, sooner or later someone's figured out how to stop it. In that sense, the overall problem isn't new. The details are specific to this situation, and some of the details are new. Every time something goes wrong it's a little bit different, but failures all tend to have a lot in common so what you learned in one will help you with the next.

This spill has once again stirred the debate over offshore drilling; what is your take on that?

Katz: I think it would be a big mistake to take this as a reason not to drill resources that are out there. The country needs oil, and the market expresses that by having a fairly high price for oil.

We burn oil. We need it. The resources are there, and we should in a responsible and sensible way go after them. It's not a good idea to be importing enormous quantities of oil, especially from unstable places with some really nasty governments.

But let's do it better. Let's be sure that when we do it that nothing goes wrong. There's never absolute assurance. But what went wrong last time? Why did it go wrong? What's the best way of fixing it if it ever goes wrong in the future? And then you go ahead.

Will you have a continued involvement in these efforts to contain the spill?

Katz: I'd be happy to, but someone's got to send me an email or a phone call.

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.