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Joel Achenbach’s “A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea,” on BP oil spill

By Henry Petroski,

A quick search on Amazon for “BP oil spill” reveals a flood of books whose intended audiences range from children and young adults to academics and policy wonks. Some of the titles, such as “Drowning in Oil” and “In Too Deep” — and even more so their subtitles, “BP and the Reckless Pursuit of Profit” and “BP and the Drilling Race that Took It Down” — presage their point of view. Some of these books were published even before we had assurance that the Gulf of Mexico oil leak had been stopped and the well had finally been sealed.

Into this ongoing torrent of publishing activity comes “A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea,” by Joel Achenbach, a Washington Post reporter who covered the gulf oil spill last spring and summer. His book’s virtually monosyllabic title is refreshingly neutral and its subtitle — “The Race to Kill the BP Oil Gusher” — welcomingly noncommittal. Achenbach does not give away the path to the denouement of his gripping narrative.

In previous books, Achenbach has written on subjects ranging from the 2000 presidential campaign to the mysteries of life in his “Why Things Are” series. His eclectic interests serve him well as he tells the story of the BP accident and aftermath as one with many facets and far-reaching implications. Achenbach appears equally well-informed and comfortable discussing encounters between managers, engineers and roustabouts, and the effect of White House politics in Washington on oil-spill containment operations in the Gulf of Mexico.

The story here is familiar: An explosion occurred aboard the drill rig Deepwater Horizon. It sank two days later and the mile-long string of piping that had connected the rig on the surface to the so-called blowout preventer was severed. The massive tower of machinery sat on the bottom of the sea but simply did not work. In Achenbach’s masterful hands, the story takes on fresh drama and meaning. His style fittingly changes over the course of the book, evolving from a staccato, clipped-sentence narration of the confusion and urgency following the explosion to a more measured and formal recounting of some early outcomes of investigations into the accident and then philosophical reflections on the meaning of it all.

One of the many engaging subplots that run through Achenbach’s tale is the interplay among Washington politics, Gulf of Mexico realities and BP’s response and responsibilities. The White House recognized that, whether it liked it or not, it was inextricably implicated in what President Obama described as the nation’s greatest environmental disaster. That sounded like hyperbole to those mindful of such historic events as the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, but the White House knew that it was fighting a war of perception. Its representatives, such as Secretary of the Interior Kenneth Salazar and Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, played central roles in asserting that the government was keeping its boot on the neck of the oil company and that the country’s best minds were working on the problem of stopping the flow of oil.

Achenbach rightly ridicules the White House’s seeming inability to utter Chu’s name without mentioning that he had won a Nobel prize in physics. That alone was evidently considered enough to qualify him to be put in charge of efforts to stop the leak. But the scientist proved to be more than just a Washington strongman driving the engineers to fix the problem. He tried to understand the workings of the recalcitrant blowout preventer himself, though in the end it was the engineers who made the right moves to kill the well, circumventing Chu when he moved too slowly.

In his preface, Achenbach says the story of the oil spill is “as fascinating as it was horrible,” and his book is proof that it is. He reflects often throughout on the role of the reporter in the midst of such a story, and he admits that he had no formula or template for its telling, but he promises to rise to the challenge “to translate Engineer into English.” He achieved his goal, and he has done so admirably.

Henry Petroski , a professor of engineering and of history at Duke University, is the author of “The Essential Engineer: Why Science Alone Will Not Solve Our Global Problems.”

A HOLE AT THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA The Race to Kill the BP Oil Gusher By Joel Achenbach Simon & Schuster. 276 pp. $25.99

The Race to Kill the BP Oil Gusher

By Joel Achenbach

Simon & Schuster. 276 pp. $25.99

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