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Paul Hsieh and The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

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Paul Hsieh Text (UPDATED ON 9/27/11)


Jerad Bales

Paul is a research scientist, he likes to work on his research. But given this opportunity to provide a service to the public that pulled him away from his work, that pulled him out of his environment, he readily stepped up, this was not something thatís in his job description, but it was a way for him to make a tangible contribution, and he did that readily, and as it turned out, he made a significant difference. So Paulís activities in the oil spill reflect well on him personally, as well as the National Research Program, and as well, public servants in general.

Paul Hsieh

I started with the USGS in 1977 after I finished my undergraduate degree. In fact, I was hired here in Reston, Virginia by John Bredehoeft, who was then the chief of research. And I worked with him on the relationship between fluid pressure and earthquakes. And then after a year I went to graduate school and I stayed part time. The Survey has been great to me in terms of supporting my education and my research while I was at grad school. And then when I finished, I moved out to Menlo Park, CA in 1983 and Iíve been there ever since.

Jerad Bales

We are very proud of Paul Hsieh, heís a long term member of the National Research Program. Heís worked on groundwater flow modeling for a number of years trying to solve difficult groundwater flow problems. Heís helping in the development of models, and he was asked by Secretary Chu to serve on his science team, and even though that took him away from his primary love, his research, he served on that team, and then he was given an opportunity, fairly unexpected, to solve a difficult problem. He did it in a creative way, he did it quickly, and his work had great impact in terms of the decisions about what was going to happen in the Gulf. So we are proud of him as a research scientist, we are happy for him, we are glad, it reflects well on the National Research Program, and on public service in general.

Paul Hsieh

The Deepwater Horizon explosion happened on April 20th. At that time, I was just like anybody else, watching the news and hoping that they would stop the oil flow. And I wasnít called in to work with the science team until the later part of June when a number of attempts to stop the oil flow failed, and eventually the plan was to put a cap on the well. So a team of USGS scientists went to Houston to work with Director Marcia McNutt on, first of all, analyzing whether itís appropriate to put the cap on and then after the cap was put on, to evaluate whether it was working or not. One big worry about putting the cap on was that the oil well itself may have been damaged. And if the oil well was damaged, then putting the cap on could create a leak underground somewhere else that eventually could erode a pathway to the ocean, to the seafloor. And then that would be a different avenue for oil to come out and in fact, it would create an uncontrollable spill. So when the oil cap was put on, the pressure in the cap was right at an intermediate level making it very difficult to decide on whether the cap was working, whether the oil was contained or whether there was a leak in the well. And I was asked to do the modeling analysis to help with that decision. The decision had to be made within 24 hours of putting the cap on, so I had very little time to do this analysis. I basically stayed up all night, did the analysis, and presented it to the government team in the morning. And based on that analysis, the government team decided to keep the cap on, and the cap stayed on, and there was no oil released after that. At the time that the cap was put on, the pressure measurements from the well was sent to the BP office in Houston. I had actually returned home to Menlo Park, and so I didnít have access to that pressure data, which were critical for my analysis. So my colleague, Steve Hickman, who was in Houston at the BP building, took a picture of the computer display showing the chart of how the pressure was rising with time and sent that picture to me, and then based on that picture, I was able to then get the data to do my analysis.

Jerad Bales

Paulís work was very creative, he used the MODFLOW groundwater flow model that has been developed over the last 25 years by the National Research Program and by others in USGS, and Paul has worked on that model, and itís been used to solve water problems around the world. In fact itís the most widely used groundwater flow model in the world. So Paul was very creative in applying this model to the oil reservoir beneath the Gulf, and he was able to do that partly because the oil kind of had properties that were similar to water in this particular case, the oil wasnít too hot and it wasnít pressurized to the point that it was boiling, so that allowed him to be creative and solve that problem.

Paul Hsieh

Well, working on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill was a career highlight for me. Itís kind of ironic that I spent my career working in water, but the knowledge and the skills that are appropriate to water, can be transferred to analyzing an oil flow situation.

Jerad Bales

So weíre proud of him, personally for him, heís labored as a government scientist in sort of obscurity, and he has an opportunity here with this to shine, and he makes us all proud.

Paul Hsieh

Thatís an inherent aspect of working with earth science because you have limited amounts of measurements, and you just canít know everything.

The advice I would share with an up-and-coming young scientist is a number of things. First, would be to really know the fundamentals of the subject that you are doing work on. Keep sharpening your skills so that you can apply them without having to constantly look up procedures and so on. Look for different opportunities to apply your skills to different situations, and work with as many of the experts within the USGS, there are so many people with diversity of expertise within the USGS, that there are just so many opportunities to work with people and learn from them.

Jerad Bales

So, Paul is the first Department of the Interior scientist to receive this award, heís the first earth scientist to receive the award, a few other scientists have received the award, they have been kind of human health scientists. So as an Earth Science Agency, as a Hydrologic Research Program, as a Water Research Program in the USGS, this reflects well on our long-term commitment to research and our capability to solve difficult problems in a short amount of time.

Paul Hsieh

My entire career with the USGS has been wonderful, I have absolutely no regrets about missing any other opportunities working any place else. I feel a great amount of affection for the USGS. It is my professional family. One of the things that I remember very vividly from when I was first hired was sitting in meetings in which high level administrators and leaders talked about the USGS as if we were a family, and that is something that I always associate with when I think of the USGS.


Title: Paul Hsieh and The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill


In April of 2010, Paul Hsieh, a research scientist, readily stepped up to an opportunity to provide a service to the public that pulled him away from his work, that pulled him out of his environment. This was not something that's in his job description, but it was a way for him to make a tangible contribution, and as it turned out, he made a significant difference. Paul's activities in the oil spill reflect well on him personally, as well as the National Research Program, and as well, public servants in general. This video describes Paul's use of quick and creative thinking to solve a difficult and pressing issue.

Location: , Gulf of Mexico

Date Taken: 9/9/2011

Length: 9:44

Video Producer: Don Becker , U.S. Geological Survey

Note: This video has been released into the public domain by the U.S. Geological Survey for use in its entirety. Some videos may contain pieces of copyrighted material. If you wish to use a portion of the video for any purpose, other than for resharing/reposting the video in its entirety, please contact the Video Producer/Videographer listed with this video. Please refer to the USGS Copyright section for how to credit this video.

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Tags: DeepwaterHorizon MODFLOW MODFLOWGroundwaterFlowModel OilSpill PaulHsieh ResearchScientist career explosion flow groundwater model oil research scientist spill


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