By William O’Keefe

The oil spill tragedy unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico has illustrated to the general public a fact those in America’s energy industry have always known. The oil business is difficult, risky, and dangerous. As such, it’s critical to routinely reevaluate and improve methods and technologies. The record of industry performance and accomplishment in hostile environments, in spite of this tragic spill, is testimony to that commitment.

The life and legacy of one of our industry’s titans, Red Adair, demonstrates that with a mix of ingenuity, persistence, and bravery, we can better protect both workers and the environment while still providing affordable oil and natural gas, as long as America and the rest of the industrialized world needs it. And, it is a indisputable fact that our economy will need affordable oil for decades to come.

Paul N. “Red” Adair was born in Houston in 1915. After quitting high school during the Great Depression to go to work and help support his family, he served in the US Army with a bomb disposal squadron during World War II. Leaving one risky job for another, he went to work for Myron Kinley — the original pioneer of oil well fire and blowout control.

Risk is an inherent factor of life. Eliminating risk in almost any activity — from driving a car to making a sandwich — is impossible. Instead, we must identify the greatest and/or most likely risks and then figure out the best means of managing and mitigating them. And that’s how Adair made his living.

Adair not only anticipated risks but also developed new and improved ways of dealing with them, revolutionizing the art of controlling oil well fires and other related disasters. He was instrumental in the development of semi-submersible firefighting vessels. (Before this, fires were largely controlled by explosives or relief wells.) Adair was also behind Aramco’s multiservice vessel Queen Mary plus two fireboats and Rapid Intervention Vessels that controlled the IXTOC blowout in the Gulf of Mexico in 1980, the second largest oil spill (and largest accidental spill) on record until today.

Adair was there for the biggest spill as well, the catastrophe intentionally perpetrated by Saddam Hussein as his forces retreated during the Gulf War in 1991. His company capped 117 wells in the Iraqi desert, accomplishing a job in six months that many thought would take as long as five years and averting an international ecological disaster.

It goes without saying that it’s because Adair and other tenacious leaders in the US energy industry that more than 40 years passed between the last production incident in 1969 and this year’s Deepwater Horizon accident. In that period, we have drilled over 50,000 offshore wells in US coastal waters and 14,000 deepwater wells worldwide without a serious accident. That is a record of excellence and care – and one we should constantly strive to improve.

Looking back at Adair’s legacy offers insight into the path we must map looking to the future. We’ll need better precautions and systems to prevent accidents and protect sensitive ecological areas. Leasing requirements should reflect site specific conditions, which means that some requirements will be more stringent and some less. In the mean time, our focus should be on stopping the flow of oil, cleaning up the oil now in the water and onshore, restoring damaged areas, compensating those suffering losses, and learning exactly what happened and what can be done to minimize future exploration and production risks.

With the situation confronting us today in the Gulf and other challenges the oil industry will undoubtedly face as the 21st century marches on, we look for the next generation of visionaries like Red Adair. They are the men and women who will conceive the new technologies and practices we will need to meet the world’s unceasing demand for energy.

William O’Keefe, chief executive officer of the George C. Marshall Institute, is president of Solutions Consulting Inc.