Book Review

Three books on the gulf oil spill

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 11, 2011; 7:59 PM

Just six months after BP stopped the oil that had been flowing into the Gulf of Mexico, a gusher of books about the spill has begun to wash ashore. The first wave includes three very different approaches to the disaster that riveted the nation most of last summer.

How we interpret the spill is important. A 1969 spill off Santa Barbara soiled the shores, killed birds and helped give rise to the modern environmental movement. Exxon's tanker accident in Valdez, Alaska, 20 years later became another symbol of reckless disregard for the environment. What makes the BP oil spill not just shocking but also dispiriting is that it might have relatively little impact on ocean-drilling policy beyond a retooling of the regulatory bureaucracy and the imposition of a few more technological safeguards. The spill has had no effect on the world's appetite for oil, and drilling will continue because the best prospects are offshore in the Gulf of Mexico, off Africa and Brazil, in the Caspian Sea, and in the Arctic.

The recent spill received massive coverage. At the Associated Press alone, more than 40 reporters and editors were thrown into the fray; teams of reporters were mobilized at papers such as The Washington Post, the Times Picayune in New Orleans, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. But even though the books under review present little if anything new, readers seeking overviews between two neat covers might find them useful.

"In Too Deep," by Bloomberg News journalists Stanley Reed and Alison Fitzgerald, opens with a brief account of the blowout, then moves on to BP's history, starting in Iran during the 1950s, when the U.S. and British governments overthrew the democratically elected regime for fear that it would hurt foreign oil interests. The authors shift quickly into more recent BP history, describing the enormous and lasting impact of former chief executive John Browne. Browne not only engineered giant mergers with Arco and Amoco, he also helped lead BP into post-Soviet Russia, Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico.

An intellectual, an engineer and a politically savvy executive with passions for art and opera, Browne guided the company into deep-water exploration in the gulf. He is credited with recognizing that the size of the discoveries in deeper water was increasing, not leveling off.

The book also profiles lower-level BP geologists who figured out where to find the likeliest prospects. A striking chart shows that BP's average cost to add a barrel of oil to its proven reserves was lower than any other major oil company's, and a tiny fraction of current prices.

Yet Browne was also a relentless cost-cutter who squeezed money out of operations that should have invested more in maintenance and equipment. The authors blame BP culture for a focus on personal rather than process safety, for leaks in the company's Alaska pipeline, for an explosion at its Texas City refinery and for the gulf blowout.

In this account, Browne's successor, Tony Hayward, who resigned in the wake of the spill last year, was the unfortunate inheritor of the company Browne built. Chosen in part because he wasn't flashy - the board of directors was weary of Browne's celebrity - Hayward lacked the skills to manage this environmental and public relations disaster.

In "Blowout in the Gulf," William R. Freudenburg, a professor of environmental studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara who died late last year, and Robert Gramling, a sociology professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, concentrate on the regulatory framework that failed to prevent the accident. They compare offshore-drilling regulation to airline regulation and discuss whether regulation might be better handled by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. They examine cleanup techniques and the prolonged and futile efforts made in Valdez. A sign of how their perspective differs from that of Reed and Fitzgerald: The two reporters write that Hayward's parting pay package was not "huge" so that "there would be no reward for failure." Freudenburg and Gramling call Hayward's $17 million package a "golden parachute."

The authors make solid points about the way the U.S. government has allowed big oil companies to march into public waters, about how the much-admired interstate highway system contributed to a fateful boom in U.S. oil consumption and about the way Americans ravenously consume oil and gas today. "Despite our habit of referring to oil 'production,' the reality is that the twentieth century was an unprecedented exercise in oil 'destruction,' " they write. "The oil was actually produced during the time of the dinosaurs."

Bob Cavnar brings an insider's view to "Disaster on the Horizon," but not one the industry will like. Cavnar has spent three decades, first on a rig and later as a chief executive, working for drilling companies in Texas, Louisiana and offshore areas. But he has a dim view of many industry practices and blogs about them for the Huffington Post.

Here, he focuses on the oil rig disaster itself and what caused it, constructing a narrative based on extensive testimony at hearings, newspaper accounts and his own experience. He makes a strong case that the spill was caused by human error. "An older engineer taught me, years ago, that wells actually talk to you," he writes. "In the hours leading up to the disaster, 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." And he notes that in deep water, "bad situations can escalate very quickly into catastrophes."


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