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Faculty experts

Gulf/BP oil spill


Robert Bea
Professor emeritus, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering
Home office: (925) 631-1587
Email: bea@ce.berkeley.edu
Media relations contact: Sarah Yang, (510) 643-7741, scyang@berkeley.edu

Expertise: Bea was a National Academy of Engineering Expert Reviewer on the Department of Interior's May 27 report on additional safety measures needed to reduce the risk of failures from offshore oil and gas activities. In 2002, Bea and Prof. Karlene Roberts, director of the Center for Catastrophic Risk Management at UC Berkeley, authored a report for BP identifying organizational challenges within the company after a series of acquisitions.

Bea says that since the 2010 disaster, the lessons learned have not been translated into more effective U.S. industry and government practices and equipment  for the very high-risk domains of offshore oil and gas development. Key recommended safety and system risk assessment and management processes have not been implemented in either current or proposed federal regulations.

Bea has more than 50 years of experience in engineering and management of design, construction, maintenance, operation, and decommissioning of engineered systems, including offshore platforms, pipelines and floating facilities. Before coming to UC Berkeley, he worked as a consultant with Sohio and BP on the topic of risk assessment and management of offshore oil and gas operations. He also worked with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Shell Oil, Shell Development, and Royal Dutch Shell companies in a variety of engineering, construction, operations, and research assignments around the world.

Bea has conducted research on numerous disasters such as the 1988 Piper Alpha oil platform explosion in the North Sea, the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil tanker spill in Alaska's Prince William Sound, the 2003 disintegration of the Columbia Space Shuttle, and the 2005 failure of the flood protection system for the Greater New Orleans Area during Hurricane Katrina.

Bea helped form a Deepwater Horizon Study Group, based at UC Berkeley's Center for Catastrophic Risk Management, to conduct research on disasters involving engineered systems.

Paul C. Henshaw
Visiting Professor, Department of Earth & Planetary Science
Mobile: (925) 212-9492
Home: (925) 673-8745
Email: phenshaw@berkeley.edu
Media relations contact: Robert Sanders, (510) 643-6998, rsanders@berkeley.edu

Expertise: Henshaw worked for Chevron Corp. for 29 years as a geologist, managing both research and development teams, and exploration and production teams. During that time he also collaborated on the design of drilling programs. He has served as wellsite geologist both onshore and offshore, where he was responsible for anticipating the rock formations, fluids and pressures that would be encountered so that drilling crews could be prepared to handle pressure changes. Regarding the Deepwater Horizon platform, he said, "It is hard to imagine that no one saw that they were starting to get a blowout."

Henshaw retired from Chevron in 2006. He now teaches a petroleum geology course at UC Berkeley and consults as geology discipline manager with PetroSkills, a training and consulting company. He can comment on the detailed planning that oil companies go through to ensure safe and successful exploration wells, and how these wells are plugged with cement until the time companies decide it is economically feasible to develop producing fields. Henshaw is good at explaining the difficulties encountered when drilling in deep formations and how crews deal with the extreme pressures and temperatures as well as varying rock layers and fluids encountered deep in the earth.

Ronald Yeung
Professor, Department of Mechanical Engineering
Office: (510) 642-8347
Email: rwyeung@berkeley.edu
Media relations contact: Sarah Yang, (510) 643-7741, scyang@berkeley.edu

Expertise: Yeung is a faculty member and adviser in graduate studies in ocean engineering at UC Berkeley. His background is in marine fluid mechanics, offshore hydrodynamics, mathematical/physical modeling and computational methodologies. His recent research interests have been on roll-motion safety issues of marine vehicles, "green ship" by configuration design of hull systems, and alternative marine renewable energy from tidal current and ocean waves. He has served as a consultant for the Office of Naval Research, the U.S. Coast Guard, and for Caltrans on issues related to ship safety, ship-to-ship interaction, and bridge-pier seismic inertia.

Yeung can comment on the mechanics and challenges that engineers must contend with — including precision maneuvers using remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) in 5,000 feet of water — in stopping and containing the flow of oil. He can also comment on the technique of capping the lower marine riser package (LMRP) to staunch the flow of oil.


Alex J. Horne
Professor emeritus, Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering
Home office: (510) 525-4433
Email: anywaters@comcast.net
Media relations contact: Sarah Yang, (510) 643-7741, scyang@berkeley.edu

Expertise: Horne is an ecological engineer with expertise in limnology and oceanography. He can discuss what is needed to treat pollutants in wetlands, and has done research on contaminants in the Gulf of Mexico. Most of Horne's work has focused on oil effects from tanker spills or oil waste disposal in the San Francisco Bay Area, as well as in offshore waters. A recent major project was studying the long-term ecological effects of the 1991 intentional release of oil into the Persian (Arabian) Gulf by Iraqi military forces, the largest oil release to date.

Horne notes that it is more difficult to estimate the environmental damage of an oil spill in oceans compared with lakes, rivers or the terrestrial environment. "The main problems are the large spatial and time scales involved," he said. "Evidence from oil spills in the oceans is always after the fact since spills are unpredictable and serious damage monitoring usually begins months or years after the spill. Unlike many land or lake ecosystems, pre-spill chemical or ecological data is rarely available. Also it takes much longer to organize deep water and coastal oceanographic expeditions than for those on more hospitable territory."

Thomas Azwell
Environmental scientist and postdoctoral researcher, Department of Environmental Science, Policy & Management
Cell: (510) 717-4404
Email: azwell@berkeley.edu
Media Relations contact: Sarah Yang, (510) 643-7741, scyang@berkeley.edu

Expertise: Azwell develops bioremediation systems for soils and innovations for oil spill response, and he has co-authored multiple publications on the subject. One of his processes was tested successfully with the Bunker C oil that spilled into the San Francisco Bay in 2007 when a Cosco Busan tanker collided with the Bay Bridge. He was the environmental lead for the Deepwater Horizon Study Group, advising the National Commission during their investigation of the 2010 Gulf of México oil spill.

Since the Macondo blowout on April 20, 2010, Azwell has spent a significant amount of time in and around the Gulf of México studying both short and long-term ecological impacts and evaluating cleanup efforts, with a primary goal of determining whether a sustainable approach to mitigating the effects of oil pollution is possible to implement.

Azwell is currently conducting research in collaboration with Chevron Energy Technology Company to develop effective bioremediation technologies for hydrocarbon-impacted soils. He also serves as director of the Brazil Energy & Environment Group (BEEG), a research center headquartered in Brazil, whose goal is to develop innovative and environmentally sustainable energy production and environmental remediation and restoration technology.

Lisa Alvarez-Cohen
Professor and chair, Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering
Office: (510) 643-8739
Email: chair@ce.berkeley.edu
Media Relations contact: Sarah Yang, (510) 643-7741, scyang@berkeley.edu

Expertise: Alvarez-Cohen is an expert on bioremediation. She studies the use of micro-organisms to help biodegrade such environmental pollutants as chlorinated solvents trichloroethene and trichloroethane, the flame retardant polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE), the stabilizer 1,4-dioxane, and the gas additive methyl tertiary-butyl ether (MTBE).

She is familiar with the use of microbes to biodegrade oil, and notes that naturally-occurring bacteria will act upon the oil over the long-term, eventually biodegrading much of it. She notes, however, that there are significant drawbacks to this oil biodegradation phenomenon in bodies of water. She pointed out that as microbes eat the oil, they also consume oxygen in the water, leaving less oxygen for marine life.


Joseph Lavitt
Lecturer, UC Berkeley School of Law
Office: (415) 499-1500
Email: jlavitt@law.berkeley.edu
Media Relations contact: Sarah Yang, (510) 643-7741, scyang@berkeley.edu

Expertise: Lavitt teaches torts and insurance law at UC Berkeley School of Law. He has written extensively on a broad range of tort and insurance coverage issues, including a 2008 article published in the Loyola Law Review concerning the inconsistent treatment of policyholders following Hurricane Katrina.

Lavitt can discuss the bases for and extent of the legal liability for damages caused by the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe. Lavitt can also address certain limitations on liability which may apply to some of the potentially responsible parties through the Oil Pollution Act (OPA), the Limitation of Liability Act of 1851 and the Robins Dry Dock rule. He can also explain the extent to which insurance may cover these losses.

Lavitt has noted that the BP spill highlighted the inadequacies of the present system of private insurance and publicly determined liability when dealing with major disasters caused by inevitable human error. What is unclear in his view is whether the legal system and insurance industry can address the types of risk now engendered by modern technology without stifling progress and development.


Karlene Roberts
Professor emeritus at the Haas School of Business and director of the Center for Catastrophic Risk Management, home for the Deepwater Horizon Study Group
Home: (925) 631-0150
Email: karlene@haas.berkeley.edu
Media Relations contact: Kathleen Maclay, (510) 643-5651, kmaclay@berkeley.edu

Expertise: Roberts studies organizational behavior and the design and management of organizations and systems of organizations whose errors can or have resulted in catastrophic consequences. Her research has been applied to U.S. Navy aircraft carrier operations, the U.S. Coast Guard, the Federal Aviation Administration’s air traffic control system, NASA, the medical industry and other major enterprises. She is a member of the National academy of Sciences Marine Board and its Committee on Offshore Oil and Gas Safety Culture.

Roberts' research group (CCRM) is currently working with and/or doing research with a major utility, a large school system, a young genetic testing company, and a major regulator.  The group is also a member of the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities Platform Team.

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