John Konrad and Tom Shroder’s “Fire on the Horizon,” on BP oil spill

April 22, 2011

Fire on the Horizon,” the latest book about the Gulf oil disaster, arrives with some unusually impressive credentials. John Konrad, who collaborated on the book with former Washington Post writer and editor Tom Shroder, is an experienced oil rig captain; he worked for Transocean (owner of the Deepwater Horizon) for seven years, spent nearly a decade on similar vessels contracted to BP, and personally knew many of the people involved in the Macondo oil well accident, including the rig’s captain and chief mate.

Konrad also has one big potential axe to grind, though to his credit he owns up to it right away: Several years ago, he was discharged from Transocean after a dispute with management over safety procedures.

But “Fire on the Horizon” shows few signs of private score-settling. While the authors do have some pungent criticisms of both BP and Transocean (whose management often seemed more worried about avoiding minor workplace accidents than performing vital preventive maintenance), assigning blame for the massive spill is not the book’s top priority. Instead, it focuses on the lives and culture of the individual men and (far fewer) women who sail the giant rigs and tackle the mind-bogglingly complex feat of digging the deepwater wells.

The book covers a remarkable amount of territory with brisk efficiency. Konrad and Shroder offer lucid thumbnail descriptions of everything from the history of offshore drilling to the biological and geological forces that create deepwater oil deposits. Their depiction of everyday life aboard rigs like the Horizon — a “high-tech cross between a neighborhood, an industrial park, and a factory” — is especially fascinating. (Interesting tidbit: The preferred cable news channel on the rig tends to be Fox, though the crew switches to CNBC if corporate honchos are aboard.)

When the authors delve into the engineering details of drilling the Macondo well, the book bogs down significantly, and its middle hundred pages can be a slog. There’s also too little here about the frustrating efforts to cap the well after the accident. But because Konrad and Shroder have taken time to highlight the personal lives of several important players in the drama, the book’s minute-by-minute account of the blowout itself carries some real emotional weight — reason enough to give “Fire on the Horizon” a prominent place in the growing literature on the Gulf oil disaster.

Gary Krist

FIRE ON THE HORIZON

The Untold Story of the Gulf Oil Disaster

By John Konrad and Tom Shroder

Harper. 270 pp. $27.99

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