Book review: A roundup of books on the gulf oil spill
When a complex event sprawls out over months — an invasion, an election, a disaster — the struggle for a dominant narrative does likewise, publicly and sometimes painfully. Journalists and the public are fond of simple stories: an evil oil company recklessly cuts corners, kills 11 men, sends a multimillion-dollar vessel to the deep, and ruins the waters of an entire Gulf of Mexico.
History demands more time and rigor.
Few of the books that have been written about the BP oil leak that began last April 20 with the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig are good history, and time is the primary culprit.
All but one of the nine works examined here has in common a cinematic recounting of the rig explosion, largely cobbled in a “Rashomon” fashion from public testimony and published accounts. It’s hard to fail at that part of the narrative, and none does. From there, however, nearly all veer toward the polemical, political and ideological.
Standing above them are “Fire on the Horizon: the Untold Story of the Gulf Oil Disaster” (Harper, March 2011), a book that deftly navigates around the good-guy versus bad-guy leitmotif; “A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea: The Race to Kill the BP Oil Gusher” (Simon & Schuster, April 2011) by Joel Achenbach of the Washington Post, which adds a candid view of the media’s coverage; and “Drowning in Oil: BP and the Reckless Pursuit of Profit,” by Loren C. Steffy (McGraw-Hill, November 2010), business columnist for the Houston Chronicle, who demonstrates what a veteran journalist in oil country can bring to bear on a story that was unfamiliar to the majority of the country.
“Fire on the Horizon,” by longtime oil-rig mariner John Konrad and former Washington Post reporter Tom Shroder is the most cinematic of the lot. Artfully and compellingly told, the book marries a John McPhee feel for the technology to a Jon Krakauer sense of an adventure turned tragic.
“This is not a story of a rig, technology, the environment, corporate policy or government oversight, but it concerns each,” Konrad writes in the author’s note.
What may seem like a dodge turns out to be a brave choice, avoiding easy answers, adding subtlety and humanity to a story told largely from the deck of the rig. Konrad and Shroder ultimately let the facts speak for themselves.
First to be elbowed aside is the notion that BP didn’t care about safety. In fact, BP and Transocean were freakishly obsessed with safety. Their definition of safety, though, was too narrow, a slip-and-fall mentality that gave short shrift to the multiple accident pathways endemic to complex technology.
Konrad, who skippered a rig similar to the Deepwater Horizon, left Transocean in a dispute over safety, so it comes as no surprise that the book pulls no punches on the topic. Decisions are laid bare along with culture clashes, including those between the original owner of the rig, R&B Falcon, and Transocean, which “cultivated a can-do cowboy swagger as a company that could accomplish the near impossible in the new frontier of ultra-deepwater drilling. ‘We’re never out of our depth’ was the corporate motto.”
Some of the obsession for occupational safety would be comic if not for the known end of this tale. BP was infamous for penalizing such activities as walking a stairway with a hot cup of coffee at its home office. There was a strict no-knives rule on the rig, which makes sense until the survivors of the wreck struggle to disengage their lifeboat from a rope that kept them tethered to the burning wreck.
“One year too many [safety violation] cards came in about missing hard hats, so the managers bought chin straps to keep the hard hats from blowing off in the wind. Of course most of the missing hard hats had nothing to do with wind, but that wasn’t the point. The point was that Transocean was tracking the potential for injury and actively working to correct problems,” the authors wryly note.
The Transocean “company men” on “the beach” were not only requiring the crew to wear company colors — red overalls, a battle the company ultimately lost — they were putting color-coded stickers on workers’ hats and quarters to match their personality types. At a glance, you could tell if someone was a “thinker,” a “feeler” or a “socializer,” or had a strong ego and was pushy.
It would be interesting to know the color of stickers on the people who made major decisions such as how to interpret pressure tests, what kind of cement to use and how to finish off the final track of the well, with precious little review, and if some testimony is to be believed, a bit of chest bumping.
But the real payoff of having a fine journalist such as Shroder working alongside a graduate of the SUNY Maritime College comes when they explain the physics of drilling and how it went wrong at the Macondo well last April 20. Their vivid and clear explanations of cementing, casing design and the process of drilling could have helped many a reporter in the four months of covering the spill. This is the McPhee side of the book.
".. Imagine standing on the observation deck of the Empire State Building and attempting to lower a soda bottle at the end of a 1,200-foot-long string into a garbage can on the sidewalk, " the authors write of the task of connecting a blowout preventer to a well bore. “It’s extremely windy and you’re wearing roller skates. Now consider that, with the building encased in clouds, it’s impossible to see the sidewalk, much less the garbage can. Imagine an observer with a cell phone at the bottom giving directions as the bottle descended. Every motion made by the person on the observation deck would take time to translate down the long string, and the effect on the bottle of his movements interacting with the swirling winds would be virtually unpredictable. But all of that would be easy compared with what the crew of the Horizon was attempting to accomplish….”
The authors mince no words on actions that were taken to save time and money — something BP denies to this day. Brian Morel, an engineer, noted that “not running the tieback” an alternative way of finishing the last leg of the well, "… saves a good deal of time/money.”
Managers such as Morel were graded annually on how much money they saved the company, and the managers regularly detailed their money-saving activities. “This created a strong incentive to find the cheaper option, and the long string was definitely cheaper,” the authors note.
Cost-cutting was deeply ingrained in the corporate culture of BP, a point driven home by Steffy in “Drowning in Oil.”
It’s no surprise that the author’s files on BP would be stuffed, summarized and ready for the Deepwater Horizon accident, given that BP’s previous worst disaster, a blast in 2005 that killed 15 workers, occurred at the Texas City refinery, about 40 miles southeast of Houston.
Steffy focuses unrelentingly on BP’s persistent failure to change its management culture, which “clung to fundamental principles that emphasize financial performance over safety, not overtly, but subtly.” Even in the face of deadly accidents, BP failed to refocus on “process safety,” in which risk assessment is paramount in every aspect, from engineering to refining.
Part of the problem was that a chosen few at BP, dubbed “the Turtles,” rotated so quickly through various branches of the company that a culture of cut-and-run evolved, leaving the next manager to deal with the aftermath. Tony Hayward, the CEO who was bounced after a few too many public gaffes during the spill, was one of those turtles who followed John Browne, the legendary “sun king” who engineered the purchases of Amoco and Arco, putting BP on the brink of the “super majors,” Exxon-Mobil and Royal Dutch Shell.
The culture that rewarded short-term gains business unit by business unit wound up eviscerating the company’s engineering, training and safety corps. That left BP more susceptible than most to an industry-wide blind spot: “Exploration for oil in the Gulf of Mexico had become ruled by the engineer’s conceit that the industry’s technology was impeccable and by the financial arrogance that argued that safety would never be compromised because the fallout from a disaster would be so great that companies would never cut corners.”
Sadly, BP’s own assessment of what went wrong on April 20, 2010, already appears to fit its past patterns — assigning blame in a scattershot fashion, focusing on technological, engineering and human-error failures it deems sui generis, rather than examining those failures as a symptom of a more pervasive and potentially more threatening phenomenon — a company and industry in need of a cultural revolution.
“Once again, though, BP’s investigation ignored the broader context, failing to ask why its employees weren’t more diligent in their decision making,” Steffy writes. “BP’s engineers clearly were concerned about the cost overruns and time delays.... In compiling the internal report, investigators never explored whether those pressures might have trumped safety concerns. Nor does it address BP’s fractured management system or the culture that talks about safety, yet emphasized profits.”
The indictment of BP’s corporate culture boils mostly below the surface of “A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea.” . Achenbach lives up to his promises to make the disaster “into a tale that everyone can comprehend,” with fluid, often Spartan prose and a candid tone.
The author admits he was thrust into a world with “a language crafted by men who use tools … masculine, the words often short, blunt, monosyllabic, barely more than grunts in some cases.”
A blunt hammer rings eloquently through many passages: “There was abundant error in the mix here. Under oath, witnesses admitted that they skimmed documents. They did not recognize that engineering anomalies were shouts of warning. They didn’t speak up in conference calls. They rushed. They behaved as if past results were an accurate prediction of future events. They didn’t take care of the little things, and then the big thing — the Macondo well, drilled by the Deepwater Horizon — didn’t take care of itself.”
Other times, Achenbach lets language trip along at an appropriate gallop: “Later, the blowout would be depicted in a highly technical, bloodless BP PowerPoint presentation … We’d hear of the cement slurry, nitrogen separation, the shoe track, the gas diverter. …. But on April 20, when the well blew, there was only chaos, noise, darkness and terror and the fire roared in the derrick and screams filled the air.”
Achenbach appears to be the only author among the bunch who bothered to obtain emails and other documents that were not revealed in testimony, which allows him to focus on Washington’s response to the disaster, an institutional strong point of the Washington Post. That work pays off in such gems as this:
“A White House aide asked the Interior Department to put together a list of things the government had done to help plug the well, saying that even a partial list ‘would be tremendously helpful in pushing back against the current press narrative’” about the spill response. But a later email counseled: “Also understand we may not wish to claim credit for top kill approach until we see what happens.”
Still, Achenbach’s unique contribution to the BP anniversary redux is the mirror he flashes regularly on himself and the media horde that descended once again on the Gulf of Mexico.
“The essential nature of the event eluded most of us in the national media,” when the blast erupted April 20, he writes. “We did not realize that the fire was not the cause of the catastrophe but a symptom of it… We had no cultural memory of a deep-sea blowout. We were like island people who had felt an earthquake for the first time in generations, and did not understand that the receding of the sea was the harbinger of a terrible wave approaching from beyond the horizon.”
Once the narrative focused on a presumed environmental nightmare, the media stumbled repeatedly. “Conceivably an element of alarmism had wormed its way into this emerging narrative,” Achenbach understates. Achenbach says he “duly reported” worst-case scenarios, but his cautions of the uncertainty of predicted spread of the oil were buried in the story, headlined, “Scientists Envision Devastation for the Gulf.”
Those paragraphs, he acknowledges, “served as weak expectoration amid the maelstrom of certain doom.” From there on, the oil was “an active force of mayhem, as mobile as a serial killer… The crisis had toggled into a new stage in which crazy was the new normal.”
Precious few of the books on the spill question the fundamental premise that it was “the worst environmental disaster” in U.S. history, as Obama pronounced it and many in the media echoed. And here is where many fail both history and science. Guiltiest among the bunch is Antonia Juhasz, whose “Black Tide” (John Wiley & Sons, April 2011) often begs its thesis, uses science selectively, and seeks refuge in anecdote when bold inquiry would have served better. She is strong where she’s been strong previously — on the nest of inter-related oil and government shenanigans of the George W. Bush administration chronicled in “The Bush Agenda.”
But Juhasz’s stubborn trumpeting of the BP spill as “the largest environmental disaster in U.S. history” is impatient history, and demonstrates a failure to understand the essence of environmental disaster. It’s not what looks big or looks bad. It’s what is bad. And the science simply hasn’t been done. (The largest environmental disaster in U.S. history is arguably the Dust Bowl, and no one should be in any hurry to knock the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound off the podium just yet. And there’s a long list of chemical dumps, coal ash spills and mining-related poisonings that so far have been much more deadly.)
Juhasz maintains that oil and the microbes that eat it leads to “the depletion of oxygen from water and acidification, both of which kill marine life and all that depend on it.” While scientists have found areas of depleted oxygen, deep deposits of oil and dead animals, none has yet to say they have found a “dead zone,” in the scientific meaning of the term, nor have they found any persistent acidification.
Fertilizer runoff down the Mississippi, however, does create a vast dead zone, and for now it qualifies as the worst environmental disaster in the Gulf while history and science sort out the impact of the BP spill. That inconvenient truth is left out of Juhasz’s narrative.
Carl Safina offers some promise of casting the cold eye of a scientist on the spill in “A Sea in Flames: the Deepwater Horizon Oil Blowout” (Crown Trade, April 2011), a lyrical and unsparing account of the disaster. “I’m a professional environmentalist and conservationist,” Safina writes. “I’m really angry about the recklessness that caused this, and the inanity of the response; I am deeply distressed about the potential damage to wildlife and habitats — but I find myself becoming increasingly uncomfortable with all the catastrophizing” over spill damages.”
Safina’s cynicism is a welcome relief. He is a fine writer and keen observer. Yet he ultimately squanders an opportunity by lingering in a lightly altered rehash of his daily musings on the disaster. Beyond the first 60 pages that explain the causes of the spill — with Safina’s trademark clarity — the narrative crawls along like the disaster did. The reader has to plod through 300 pages before Safina calls for “calmness, clarity, rationality and insight.”
For all its sober tone, Safina’s work is angry, derisive, sarcastic, jocular and adds little scientific insight. When he finally interviews Incident Commander Thad Allen, the U.S. Coast Guard admiral and veteran of the Katrina disaster who was appointed by Obama to take charge of spill response, Safina admits that he “started to feel an uncomfortable twinge — more than a twinge — that my summer-long simmering mental caricature of him was off-base…. I was surprised to find myself thinking that if a hero is someone who steers events through a national crisis, Allen’s as much a national hero as anyone I could think of. Well, that was a startling thought.”
Indeed, it startles a reader who has been hit with ample doses of derision toward Allen, dubbed the “Thadmiral.”
The best insight Safina has to offer is too obvious to wait 300-plus pages: “The worst environmental disaster in history isn’t the oil that got away. The real catastrophe is the oil we don’t spill. It’s the oil we run through our engines as intended. … The best way to respond to the Gulf disaster? Not cleaning birds, picking up turtles, spraying dispersants, or cleaning beaches. Rather, pulling the subsidies out from under Big Petroleum … and hurry toward better options.”
Few would agree more with the lopsided economics of Big Oil than William R. Freudenburg and Robert Gramling, whose “Blowout in the Gulf: The BP Oil Spill Disaster and the Future of Energy in America,” (MIT Press, November 2010) falls in the didactic and polemic category. Its prose, at times kitschy with metaphors and overuse of sarcastic asides, betrays its bias early. Once the authors settle down into their well-established expertise — the history and economics of the oil industry, they offer a great primer on the oil industry and its regulation (or lack thereof).
The type of drilling undertaken by BP not only lacked adequate safety analysis, it was damaging to the federal budget, the authors show. A Republican-led move to offer “area-wide” leases in vast zones of federal waters, of which BP was a beneficiary, made the auction process less competitive and led to a decline in per-acre income for the federal government, not the increase that had been touted by those who supported it. “Despite more than a six-fold expansion in the number of leases sold, the total monetary amounts actually went down, not up,” the authors note.
When the Newt Gingrich Congress in 1995 suspended royalties and offered steep discounts, ostensibly to encourage deep-water drilling, the result was an economic distortion in which oil and gas pays the equivalent of a 9% marginal tax rate on investment, while the average is 26%, according to the authors.
“Not only do we inhabit a world where our remaining reserves of precious petroleum are disappearing fast, but we receive a lower rate of payment from oil companies for those reserves than almost any other country in the world. Finally, as if that is not enough, we have allowed oil companies to exert such powerful influences over the writing of tax laws that we encourage them to drain America’s oil even faster — effectively discouraging investments in other lines of business at the same time. It’s quite a deal.”
Like Safina, the authors land on a familiar soap box: stop policies that encourage rapid use of oil, stretch our remaining oil, and find substitutes for the goods, services and processes that require it.
“In Too Deep: BP and the Drilling Race that Took it Down” (Wiley/Bloomberg Press, January 2011), by Stanley Reed and Alison Fitzgerald, likewise rests its case on BP’s corporate culture. Although its history of BP is fascinating, the authors make halting progress toward their main thesis over many chapters, spending time on summary and unshaped chronology rather than analysis.
They rightly lay much of the blame for past BP disasters at the Texas City refinery and in Alaska at the feet of John Browne, a relentless cost-cutter. Safety at Texas City, a BP internal report showed, “was unofficially sacrificed to cost reductions, and cost pressures inhibited staff from asking the right questions.” BP’s own report said that at Texas City, “a culture that evolved over the years seemed to ignore risk, tolerated noncompliance, and accepted incompetence.”
In Alaska, the authors show, cost-cutting led to skimping on chemicals that could have prevented the corrosion problems that led to leaks and an eventual partial shutdown of the trans-Alaska pipeline. Internal documents and emails released by the Energy Committee two weeks after Hayward took over for Browne “showed BP had chosen to eliminate anti-corrosion chemicals in its Alaska pipeline network to meet budget goals. … the internal e-mails show managers of the pipeline knew the decision would lead to degradation of the pipes.”
Occupational safety was arguably an obsession at BP, yet “requiring refinery workers to wear hard hats and goggles won’t prevent methane from escaping through a faulty valve,” they note of the Texas disaster.
The authors are the only ones to mention a telling counterpoint to the Deepwater Horizon accident — the Blackbeard well that Exxon Mobil walked away from after too many signs that it was headed toward disaster. The oil giant was ridiculed as having too much discretion and too little valor. But Exxon Mobil learned from the 1988 Valdez spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. The oil giant operates with a system-safety matrix that lays out the likelihood of an adverse event with its level of impact. “High consequence, high likelihood events show up in the upper left of the matrix. As an activity such as drilling a volatile well or cutting the costs of maintenance travels upward and leftward on the matrix, the decision had to go to higher levels of management for approval.”
Not so, apparently, with BP: “What’s striking about the Macondo disaster is that relatively low-level BP personnel on the rig made important decisions that cost the company many billions of dollars. They appear to have made the calls on whether or not to do certain tests, such as of the integrity of the cement in the well. The evidence smacks of a business unit that lacked clear procedures and rules of best practice.”
“Disaster on the Horizon: High Stakes, High Risks and the Story Behind the Deepwater Well Blowout,” (Chelsea Green, October 2010) by Bob Cavnar is a heavily polemical recounting of the disaster from a long-timer in the oil industry who runs a blog called the Daily Hurricane, and who appeared as an expert on CNBC during the blowout.
There are good moments and unique perspectives in this account, particularly Cavnar’s insistence that a well “speaks” through the many gauges available to drillers on the rig. “The well from hell was screaming at the crew that it was going to blow out, but nobody could understand the language it was speaking,” he writes. “The Horizon’s crew, one of the most experienced in the deepwater, their supervisors, their managers, and their executives had all been deafened by their many successes.”
But Cavnar’s account loses strength and credibility through conjecture, overstatement (the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history, for one), and its own bully-pulpit tone. There’s a bit of braggadocio and I-told-you-so, pitfalls that fellow industry insider Konrad, paired with Shroder, managed to avoid.
“In Deep Water: The Anatomy of a Disaster, the Fate of the Gulf and Ending Our Oil Addiction,” by Peter Lehner with Bob Deans (OR Books, September 2010) was the first of the pack to be published, and while it is well written, it is essentially a long-form pamphlet following the party lines of the Natural Resources Defense Council, of which Lehner is executive director. It suffers from poor sourcing and footnotes, and reaches a predictable conclusion. That said, brevity is its chief virtue.
Mohan is The Times environmental editor.
Love a good book?
Get the latest news, events and more from the Los Angeles Times Book Club, and help us get L.A. reading and talking.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.