Nicholas School Faculty and Students Spearhead Think Tank on Ocean Energy

April 1, 2016

By Nathan Miller MEM '17

As interest in offshore drilling grows worldwide, a diverse group of Duke students, scientists and policy experts have come together to identify the impacts increased energy exploration and drilling might have on coastal ecosystems, and to propose possible solutions.

Led by Nicholas School Professor Doug Nowacek, the group is addressing the issues as part of a Bass Connections interdisciplinary research project called, “The History and Future of Ocean Energy.”

In addition to Nowacek, leading the group are Nicholas School faculty members Lori Bennear and Jay Golden, and John Virdin and Jonas Monast from the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.

“Jay Golden and I had been discussing the idea of bringing a group of students and faculty to research ocean energy and policy for several years. The Bass Connections program gave us a great platform for doing that,” says Nowacek, Repass- Rodgers University Associate Professor of Conservation Technology. “Bass Connection initiatives are nothing new at Duke, but there had never been one that specifically focused on ocean energy.”

The timing for the initiative couldn’t be better, he adds. With government and industry expressing growing interest in energy exploration off the U.S. East Coast and in the Arctic, agencies such as the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) have been scrambling to develop national policies for regulating the proposed offshore energy activities.

“We’re looking to generate products—papers, presentations and the like—that consider ocean science as well as the socioeconomic impacts of potential policies agencies like BOEM may enact,” Nowacek says. “We ultimately hope that whatever results we produce will help federal agencies formulate the best possible policy for a specific region or topic.”

The 12 students (five graduate students and seven undergraduates) who joined the project were split into three teams, each assigned to research a different coastal region and assess the state of national policies that govern energy exploration and exploitation there.

One team has been analyzing the capacity for the island nation of Mauritius to transition from fossil fuel-based energy to renewable energies by the midcentury. The other two teams have been investigating how the United States can best manage energy exploration and extraction off the Atlantic coast and in the Arctic, respectively.

For Geoff Cooper, a firstyear Master of Environmental Management student concentrating on environmental economics and policy, the project has provided him a conduit to continue researching U.S. affairs in the Arctic.

“It’s nice to be doing work that has direct applications to the real world,” Cooper says, “I like being able to access information from students and faculty whose disciplines are different from mine. Interacting with peers who specialize in engineering or history offers me new insight that allows my research in energy to become that much richer.

“We know there are environmental risks that come with offshore drilling wherever you decide to place the rig, and they’re hard to understate. However, it’s also pertinent to consider the fact that more than 90 percent of Alaska’s revenue is based on oil,” says Cooper, who spent several years in Alaska before coming to Duke.

Drilling in the Arctic would be a real lifeline to the state’s economy and the economics of other states such as Louisiana, where many ships are built, and Washington, where there is a staging ground for ships before they sail north, he says.

Through his interactions with students and faculty with expertise in policy and engineering, he’s also gleaned useful insights about how energy development in the Arctic could lead to better high-seas infrastructure.

If industrial ships established a more consistent presence in the Arctic, it could push the Coast Guard to expand what are now minimal resources in the area, which has limited their ability to respond on time to ships in distress, he says.

“Without industry assests or the Coast Guard, the Arctic environment is at a greater risk from oil spills or groundings from foreign-flagged vessels,” he says. “Development in the Arctic is going to happen—it’s just a matter of whether or not the U.S. will be prepared for it.”

Cooper and the other students will work with faculty to submit their research to peer-reviewed journals later this year.

Students in this Bass Connections program not only have access to first-hand research, but they received valuable face time with top BOEM administrators, who came to North Carolina for a special workshop Nowacek led at the Duke Marine Lab this past October.

Nowacek hopes to take the group to D.C. in the spring. “It’d be nice to meet with several key policy makers who have the final say on these issues and gauge their responses to the great work our students are doing.”


Nathan Miller MEM’17 is the Nicholas School’s student communications assistant.