Russ: Welcome back to The BusinessMakers Show, brought to you by Comcast Business, built for business. My guest today – Chuck McConnell, the Executive Director of Rice’s Energy and Environment Initiative; also, former Assistant Secretary of Energy in the Obama Administration focused on fossil fuels. Chuck, welcome to The BusinessMakers Show.
Chuck: Welcome back Russ.
Russ: So tell us about this program; this Energy and Environment program here at Rice University.
Chuck: Well the challenge for me coming back to Rice was to weave together all of our capabilities here internally in terms of our technologies, our policies, our interdisciplinary capabilities and really focus on the relevant and impactful areas of energy. And for us here in Houston, where it’s the energy capital of the world, it’s about fossil fuels; it’s oil and gas. It’s about the challenges that oil and gas presents us to have it be accessible, to have it be affordable and certainly also environmentally responsible. So we pulled that all together, not just internally, but also to do a much better job externally with the marketplace and the people here in Houston that think so highly of Rice.
Russ: Okay. Now that’s pretty unique for a major university to have a position focused on that isn’t it?
Chuck: Well you can find a lot of energy and environment initiatives across the country – I would argue maybe even globally.
Chuck: Many of them have different areas of focus. We picked ours because it’s important that not only the curriculum, the areas of research, the opportunities for our students going forward for meaningful jobs that again, that are going to be impactful and relevant in the marketplace; oil and gas is a big part of our world as you well know. And it’s also important that we focus on the areas of it that will make it environmentally responsible and that also have it be affordable and accessible not just here in the U.S., but also globally.
Russ: Has the program been out here long enough to have some success?
Chuck: We’ve had some success Russ. Short term I think we’re most excited recently about the award of the Subsea Institute, which will be focused on deep water, offshore oil and gas exploration. An opportunity for us here at Rice along with our partners at The University of Houston and NASA – the Johnson Space Center – to put our collective capabilities to lead an effort to make oil and gas exploration offshore more safe, more operationally productive and to also make certain that the environmental risks associated with it are addressed, primarily through transformational technology.
Russ: Okay, well congratulations on that, I want to go down that path deeper for sure, but before I do let’s back back up to Rice University. So what has Rice done sort of across, you know, college boundaries that played a role there and in just upgrading the understanding of energy and the environment at the university?
Chuck: Well I think for us, first we look at the core capabilities that we have technologically. We look at our engineering organization here at Rice with advanced materials, advanced computing and computational analysis; the ability to take those type of engineering capabilities and process systems design and designing things like offshore platforms in a unique and different way. You combine that with what we have in our Earth Sciences area – visualization and imaging, seismic analysis – the kinds of advanced technologies that can not only help you find the oil, but to productively produce it and to have it be environmentally responsibly taken care of in terms of the process designs. And the other unique thing we have here in marrying all of these capabilities at Rice is out Baker Institute.
The public policies associated with many of these new areas of energy that we’re pushing in to – the unconventionals, the deep offshore – the policies that are informed by technology are usually the best ones.
Chuck: And we’re in a position here where we can marry that and pull that capability together and that’s what gets us going with our energy and environment initiative.
Russ: Well I understand that and we’ve had Dr. Kenneth Medlock III on the program probably 3 times now just close by here and it’s an impressive institute over there for sure. One more thing though that I find fascinating, this is a major university, you’re collaborating with The University of Houston which I think is really cool – and NASA, want to go down that path – but to have such an obvious sort of fossil fuels program and presence clearly is unique amongst universities. When you have universities on the west coast and the east coast who are championing the divestiture programs to get out of fossil fuels completely do you – the Millennials, the students here – do you ever experience push back?
Chuck: Well that’s an interesting question, I’ll come out of it maybe a little different angle. The two words that I used initially and I use every time I can is relevance and impact. Now if you think about that in terms of supply of energy or what our country runs on, and frankly what the world runs on, we’re going to double the world’s demand for energy in the next 40 years.
Russ: Do the math.
Chuck: The IEA has already projected that over 80% of the world’s energy will be fossil fueled in 2050. Look, we don’t love fossil fuels, we love responsible energy. And understanding and accepting where the short term, medium term and even some of our longer term challenges are, if you really care about the environment Russ you’ve got to spend time working on transformational technology for fossil fuels; it’s a must. It’s going to be the workhorse for our energy demands going forward, it will be the largest part of our environmental footprint, and so accepting the realities going forward is really what drives the fundamentals of the program here. If we believe that wind and solar can replace everything in the next 10 years it’s an easy answer; you become fossil-less overnight; but that’s not the reality Russ. What the reality is, is it’s going to require thoughtful and intelligent approaches to fossil fuel utilization; we hope to be right in the middle of that.
Russ: There you go. All right, so back to this Subsea Initiative collaboration, you know, I’ve seen a lot of things called collaboration before; they sort of seem to maybe be just for the report. Is it really going to be collaboration between The University of Houston, Rice and NASA?
Chuck: Well there is already. I’ll tell you a quick story which to me was one of the most heart-warming things that occurred for me taking this job 2 years ago. I was in the job less than a week and I get a phone call from the head of the energy initiative at The University of Houston, Ramanan Krishnamoorti. Ram called me up and said welcome to the world of academics – which I got a kick out of. This is my first time ever in the academic world. But it was a real welcome; he said look, we’re here, we want to work with you where there’s opportunities, don’t forget about us. And I said don’t forget about us. It’s a natural, we’re two very strong universities in the same city and if we don’t take advantage of that we’d be foolish.
Well less than a year later the opportunity for this came about and frankly through the leadership of The University of Houston as a public institution, the ability to go after the funding that was going to become available through the Subsea Institute, U of H reached out to Rice I think in an intelligent way in terms of making the capabilities of the partnership much more complete and perhaps more powerful, and I think the same logic behind reaching out to NASA and the Johnson Space Center. That’s a place where failure is not an option and they put a lot of effort into that and certainly to have that kind of competency. I don’t think there’s anybody in Houston that doesn’t recognize how strong NASA is, but to actually put those capabilities to use in the marketplace I think just serves us all well.
Russ: Absolutely. Well as a Houstonian and as having spent lots of time at The University of Houston as well as here at Rice I think that’s really cool that it’s happening that way and I haven’t seen it happen that way that much at all in the past.
Chuck: Yeah, collaboration’s an overused word. You hear it a lot at speeches and people talk about it all the time, but what does it mean? It usually means that there’s personal relationships that have been established and the one thing I’ve learned in Houston in 23 years of living here and working in the energy industry and this is before government service for 30 some years in the industry, people in this town get to know each other. It’s important to do that. And those personal relationships develop into the strategic business partnerships and business relationships that make this place unique. And that’s why being in Houston is a perfect place for this activity and for the work that we’re doing.
Russ: Cool. So tell us about this – I keep calling it the Subsea, I think the official name is Offshore Research Center – tell us what the mission is.
Chuck: Well, I guess to step back a little Russ, everybody here in the gulf is aware of the gulf incident with BP, Macondo and all of the associated disastrous activities that went on. It’s true in this business – because the footprint is so big – you don’t get take backs. You’ve got a disaster and so what happens next? What has happened is that subsequently the federal government has adjudicated a fine. BP’s paid that fine as well as TransOcean and several other members of that associated activity. It’s punitive; it’s meant to send a strong message and certainly that’s part of it, but I don’t think that’s the biggest part of it. I think what we’ve done is we’ve created an amazing opportunity.
Five of the states along the Gulf Coast were impacted by the Macondo incident. Four of those states – not Texas – but four of the other states were focused primarily on ecological clean up – the sand, the birds, the seafood; the things that were really impacted for the communities, for the people and certainly for the environment. Texas wasn’t impacted directly so much by the oil spill as it was the resulting impact from the oil embargo – the offshore oil embargo for drilling, some of the business and economic disruption that occurred, and so we actually took a different tact. As opposed to focusing on the clean up or the post-incident technology, what can we do to put transformative technology to work as we’re drilling, as we’re producing, as we’ve got responsibilities necessary to have safe, uninterrupted and failure not an option mentality out in the deep water.
We can’t have another incident like that. Our mission is that we won’t. And we believe that will be accomplished through transformative technologies; transformative ways in which we do our work and an operational discipline unprecedented as we move forward.
Russ: Wow, impressive. Is there a time table that the collaboration group has; that we have to produce results in 3 years, in 5 years, in 10 years?
Chuck: Well of course you like to produce results immediately; I mean that’s the nature of the business. And I think that there’s something else that I do want to emphasize with you is that it’s not just U of H and NASA and us here at Rice. We’re going to provide the initial impetus to move this forward but for us to really be effective we will be actively out in the oil and gas community looking for the industrial leadership that’s going to be necessary. The key leaders in the industry, in the oil and gas area, that are themselves focused on operational discipline, transformative technologies; understanding probably better than any of us in the academic world, what are those real challenges to operate 10,000 feet below the surface of the water.
To be able to conduct electricity, to have materials that can withstand pressures and temperatures that we’ve not seen before; to have systems designed that are failsafe. When things are supposed to happen in circumstances where shutoffs and cutoffs are necessary that they do; it’s not a question of hoping that they do, but actually ensuring that they do. You might find this interesting; the original blowout preventer that we’ve all heard about – invented right here at Rice by one of the fellas whose name is on our engineering building, Dr. Abercrombie – the design of that blowout preventer some 60, 70 years later looks very much the same as it did then. It’s a heck of a lot bigger, it weighs a lot more; it’s borderline unmanageable in some instances in terms of the sheer mass.
And so it gives us the cause to be able to look and step back from that and say is there a better way; different materials, different design, a better way to actually approach the problem rather than just making it bigger and heavier. And that’s part of the challenge. I think that’s part of what industry’s looking for from us too is that those initial concepts, those ideas for transformations, to then be able to move that along the development pipeline for piloting and testing. Working closely with industry and applications where it’s not just an idea on a bench in the basement of a lab at a university, but it turns into something that’s going to be impactful in the marketplace. And that’s the key, being able to connect that whole chain of research for an outcome.
Russ: Well Chuck, I really appreciate you sharing this exciting program with us.
Chuck: Pleasure and thanks again for coming Russ.
Russ: You bet. And that wraps up my discussion with Chuck McConnell, the Executive Director of Rice’s Energy and Environment Initiative. And this is The BusinessMakers Show, brought to you by Comcast Business, built for business.
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