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Return to Macondo

19 Apr 2012

A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea: the Race to Kill the BP Oil Gusher
Joel Achenbach
2011 Simon & Schuster £19.29/$25.99hb 276pp

Black day

Monday 20 April 2010 is a day that will live long in the oil industry’s collective memory. For those of us who were working in the industry at the time, it is like the assassination of John F Kennedy, the Challenger space-shuttle disaster or 9/11: you remember where you were and what you were doing. For example, I was in Tunisia, stranded by the Icelandic ash cloud that had shut down much of European airspace, and just about to enter my last month of working for BP before taking up an academic post at Imperial College London. E-mail exchanges confirmed that all was well in the London office, and neither I nor my colleagues knew that it was about to become the blackest day in the company’s 107-year history.

Then BP’s Macondo oil well blew out, causing an explosion that killed 11 workers on the Deepwater Horizon rig and kicking off what would become 152 days of sheer hell for pretty much everyone involved. The images of the Macondo disaster will also live long in the memory. The burning inferno of the Deepwater Horizon before it sank. The flotilla of ships and rigs around the disaster site. The frantic clean-up activity on the beaches surrounding the Gulf of Mexico. But most of all, it is the haunting images of the gusher on the seabed – brought via live video feed to computer and television screens around the world – that will remain with us long after the dust, or rather the oil, has settled.

It may be several years before we fully understand the chain of events that led to the blow-out. In the meantime, though, anyone who wants an honest, uncluttered and considered account of the Macondo disaster should read A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea by Joel Achenbach, a veteran reporter who covered the story for the Washington Post. Pick up this book and you will uncover a heady mix of forensic science and real-life drama that played out in front of a global audience, complete with a handful of genuine heroes. People like Admiral Thad Allen of the US Coast Guard, who stepped up to the plate and gave their all when disaster struck. Engineers like Richard Lynch of BP, with a seemingly intractable problem to solve and the clock endlessly ticking. Achenbach gives readers a real feel for the stress these people were under at the time, as they tried to answer questions such as “How bad is this going to get?” and, even more importantly, “How do we stop it?”.

The tale of the oil industry’s biggest and most highly publicized disaster is told in the style of a classic thriller, with a beginning (the blowout), a middle (the search for the solutions) and an end (the sealing of the well after 152 days). It opens, crucially, with a testament to the 11 men who died, surely the real victims of the Macondo disaster. Throughout the narrative that follows, Achenbach’s riveting account looks beyond the politics and generally uninformed Internet comment and seeks to tell the story behind the cause, solution and aftermath of a modern technological catastrophe.

It quickly became clear that this event was not going to be a typical oil-spill tragedy played out on the beaches. Instead, all the action was taking place a mile below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico – an alien world where technology is king and the human players in surface-based installations must fight a daily battle to keep on top of engineering in extreme deep-water conditions. As Achenbach describes, this is a tough environment. He’s right. I’ve been there, I’ve got the T-shirt.

Achenbach paces his narrative well, interspersing interviews with the principal figures involved in the crisis (including both government and BP officials) and exhaustive research based on an analysis of almost 20,000 pages of unpublished US government e-mails. On reflection, though, some of this material may be slightly too exhaustive. For my taste, he includes a little too much of the politics (particularly at local level) and not really enough of the science behind deep-water drilling. Readers should not expect a major engineering treatise or an in-depth analysis of every last widget that might have failed. Achenbach also uses lots of technical terms and jargon that even I, with my industry background, had to look up. However, the most important concepts, such as “hot stab”, “top kill”, “junk shot” and so on, are described at a sufficient level of detail.

The book is written very much from a US perspective. This is understandable, as that is where the tragedy had the most impact. However, I was encouraged to find that despite its US origins, the book is not a BP-bashing exercise. Unlike much of the world’s media and the US administration at the time, Achenbach presents a remarkably well-balanced description of the events, from the perspective of someone who was reporting on the incident first-hand. The discomfort of BP executives hauled in to testify at House subcommittee hearings is countered by a narrative that describes an administration in crisis and all too eager to look for a “bad guy” to blame. Achenbach also deals effectively with the constructive tension between BP and US government scientists, who worked alongside each other at BP’s Houston offices. This “forced marriage” was often awkward and strained, but it nevertheless eventually delivered a solution.

In the book’s later chapters, Achenbach moves beyond a description of Macondo’s aftermath onto an analysis of its causes. As he astutely points out, there is seldom a single identifiable causal event for major technological disasters. Instead, it is typically a series of relatively insignificant, often unrelated events that come together to form the “perfect storm”. The author suggests 10 direct causes, including a blow-out preventer with maintenance issues and the absence of a cement-bond log test, but to be honest, it is difficult to know where to draw the line.

Perhaps more importantly, Achenbach also asks what lessons can be learned from such an event. He informs us that the oil industry experienced 33 near misses in the Gulf between the 1979 Ixtoc blow-out in Mexico and the 2010 Macondo explosion, and he is right to ask whether BP and others ventured into deep waters without fully understanding or being in control of the technology. But surely, much of human achievement has been won by working at the edge and taking calculated risks. Did we push too far in the search for these highly desirable and valued hydrocarbons?

One thing is certain: an incident like this must not be allowed to happen again. It is important that we all understand the events of 20 April 2010 and the consequences that ensued. For that reason, if you are involved in any way with the petroleum industry – or just someone seeking an honest and well-written account of its darkest day – I urge you to read this book. Perhaps more information about the cause of the blow-out and subsequent explosion will come to light in the future, but in the meantime, we can be satisfied with Achenbach’s tale. When you finish it, you will still have questions, but then, so does the author. In particular, the part played by the mysterious “bladder effect” seems pretty baffling – I certainly found it so. But I will let you read for yourselves to understand the significance of this effect and the central part it may have played in creating the “hole at the bottom of the sea”.


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