Writings from the black hole
Deepwater Horizon – What to read at the first anniversary of the blowout
The Economist, April 2011
THE oil prospect from which the Deepwater Horizon rig was disengaging itself when disaster struck on April 20th 2010 was named Macondo after the setting of Gabriel García Márquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude”. Some of the spreading slick of books on the Deepwater blowout and its subsequent oil spill dutifully attempt to cash in on this literary reference—invoking Macondo’s ageless origins, its propensity for the innominate and the extremes of irreality and, more than once, its hurricane-mediated erasure from all subsequent memory. The ploy never quite seems to fit, though. How much easier it would have been for the authors if the Márquez reference that had come to the mind of the well’s nameless name-giver had been from “Chronicle of a Death Foretold”; its spirit of the botched and the inevitable would underpin the narrative like a pile driven into ocean sediments.
The sense of the pressure of events as of the overburden of a mile of rock, of the tragic irony of life as usual on the rig even in the minutes that its oily nemesis was roaring up from the well below, is well caught in the best and cheapest of the available accounts, that of the presidential commission on the spill, available free on the internet. Anyone wanting a book-length account of the disaster which goes into satisfying detail about its causes, its context, its impact and what should be done next should start there. It is gripping in those places where that is appropriate: well judged, nicely written—by the standards of books you might otherwise pay for, not just by the standards of committee reports—and well illustrated with both photographs and diagrams. The last matters quite a lot. To come close to understanding the intricacies of the disaster without diagrams is next to impossible. Why the commercial offerings do without diagrams showing the structure of the well and its components is a mystery. If they think they’ll put readers off they should have more faith (and draw them nicely).
If you still want to spend some money, your choice of book is likely to be based on which of the various contexts you either think most critical or find most congenial. To look at the disaster as an outcome of America’s historic enthusiasm for oil production—in the 19th century the distinction between petroleum oil and whale oil in some markets was simply the adjective “American”—turn to “Blowout in the Gulf”, though the book’s claim that Deepwater Horizon says a great deal about the future of energy in America is something of a stretch. Antonia Juhasz’s “Black Tide” seems to get closer to the truth when she bemoans the fact that, as yet, Deepwater Horizon does not look like changing all that much in Washington, DC.
The recent history and corporate culture of BP—in particular the difficulties it faced in absorbing two large American acquisitions and the disastrous fire at its Texas City refinery, which killed more people than the loss of the Deepwater Horizon—provide the setting for “In Too Deep”, written by two Bloomberg journalists, Stanley Reed and Alison Fitzgerald. The book points out some interesting things that other accounts miss, such as the criticism faced by Exxon a few years earlier when it abandoned a troublesome deepwater well in the Gulf, called “Blackbeard”, rather than risk continuing it. But it doesn’t have the insider-ish corporate feel that would lift it above the others, and by rushing to press in January it has missed the salient fact that BP now faces another seemingly irresolvable mess, this time in Russia.
This is an extreme version of the problem many of the books have in dealing with the disaster as an end product, a symbol of something greater, a nemesis to some hubris. The world has already moved on. In years to come it will be possible to place Deepwater Horizon in various narratives, perhaps as a turning point. But it is not the end of some prior story. It is a story in itself, something which two other writers, Carl Safina and Joel Achenbach seem to appreciate best. Mr Safina, a noted conservationist, provides a set of impressions and reflections as they struck him over the summer. He can be entertaining and insightful, but the book’s charms are undercut by a striving for effect that turns out to be both grandiloquent and sloppy.
This is undoubtedly a result of being rushed—a problem which also mars “Blowout in the Gulf” and “In Too Deep”. Mr Achenbach, by contrast, manages to turn the chaotic speed of events into something of a bonus. Having covered the disaster as part of an impressive team at the Washington Post, where he reports and blogs, he tells its story in part by telling the story of telling the story—of missteps in reporting, of uncovering the causes of the disaster at the same time as discovering its effects on beaches. He opines and makes jokes as he charges on, and the book is on the whole the better for it.
Mr Achenbach can also draw back quite dispassionately, though a lack of engagement with victims will mar the book in some eyes. His closing chapter, “The Banality of Catastrophe”, lays out better than anything how everyday and ordinary engineering and business practices can be even when on the cusp of becoming unhappily extraordinary. He addresses the central tension in the response to the spill with a frankness that the commission report cannot; that the government and BP had to work together while at the same time the administration had little option but to frame the disaster as a rerun of Hurricane Katrina, but this time with a government that cared and a foreign perpetrator to take the blame.
Both Mr Safina and Mr Achenbach give significant roles in their stories to Admiral Thad Allen, the thoughtful and decisive now-retired commandant of the Coast Guard who led the government response. Mr Safina starts off disliking Mr Allen and comes somewhat to admire him; Mr Achenbach likes him from the start, in part, perhaps, because he likes the way he speaks; a public servant happy to characterise a crisis as “indeterminate, asymmetrical and anomalous” is Mr Achenbach’s kind of guy. Any reader who, after all this, still wants to read more about Deepwater Horizon should hope that Mr Allen has ambitions as a memoirist. On the evidence to date he will think, he will take his time and he will put his chronicling of the death of a rig into the story of a life richly, interestingly lived. Someone sign him up.
Deep Water: The Gulf Oil Disaster and the Future of Offshore Drilling. By the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling. 381 pages; available free
Blowout in the Gulf: The BP Oil Spill Disaster and the Future of Energy in America. By William Freudenburg and Robert Gramling. MIT Press; 240 pages; $18.95 and £14.95. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk
A Sea in Flames: The Deepwater Horizon Oil Blowout. By Carl Safina. Crown; 368 pages; $25. Buy from Amazon.com
A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea: The Race to Kill the BP Oil Gusher. By Joel Achenbach. Simon & Schuster; 288 pages; $25.99. Buy from Amazon.com