Books: mixing oil and water

After wading through two volumes examining the BP catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, Ed Crooks is full of praise for the US government’s Deep Water report and two journalists’ In Too Deep.

Deep Water: The Gulf Oil Disaster and the Future of Offshore Drilling
National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill
US Government Printing Office, 2011

In Too Deep: BP and the Drilling Race That Took It Down
Stanley Reed and Alison Fitzgerald
John Wiley, 2011

One of the incidental revelations of the WikiLeaks state department cables was just how much first-class writing is produced by the US diplomatic service. The rightly celebrated account of a wedding in Dagestan, for example, is a masterclass in international reporting.

American officials have a great tradition of elegant and thoughtful communication; the national commission report on the 9/11 terrorist strikes remains the best available single-volume account of the attacks.

Now another commission, appointed to learn the lessons of last year’s massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, has added to that impressive body of official literature with Deep Water, its magisterial assessment of one of the most severe tests Barack Obama has faced in his presidency.

Also published in January was the latest, and probably the best, of what one might call the “private sector” books about the BP spill: In Too Deep, by Stanley Reed and Alison Fitzgerald, a pair of talented and experienced Bloomberg News reporters. Despite working at speed, they tell the story well. Yet in terms of providing an explanation of how and why the spill happened, and what its consequences might be, they are thoroughly eclipsed by the official inquiry.

The explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig on April 20, 2010 killed 11 men and caused the world’s largest offshore spill. The US administration’s failure to stop the leak or protect the coastline from oil, and what was seen as Obama’s insufficiently emotive demeanour, sent his poll ratings slumping.

In May, he appointed a seven-member commission (led by a former Democratic senator and a former head of the Environmental Protection Agency under president George HW Bush) to determine what had gone wrong, and how it could be stopped from happening again. The report is thorough and judicious, both in its analysis of the accident and its policy prescriptions. That much might have been expected, given the expertise and resources, including 56 staffers and 84 consultants to support the seven commissioners. What was less predictable was that such a large cast of contributors should have turned in such a well-crafted and focused document.

It is not light reading, of course: it is heavy on technical detail at times, and harrowing at others. Yet it is always lucid and accessible, and offers by far the best account of the disaster now available.

In search of the widest possible readership, the report has been given all the trappings of commercial publishing: a dramatic cover photo, a snappy title and an opening narrative that gives a cinematic scene-by-scene account of the disaster. Like the 9/11 commission report, it has arresting quotations as epigraphs at the start of every chapter, such as: “You’re in it now, up to your neck!”, from Steven Chu, the US energy secretary, quoting Gregory Peck in the classic second world war film, The Guns of Navarone.

Where it really scores over other books about the spill, however, is in its intellectual rigour. The commission marshals a weight of evidence and a depth of understanding that no other author has yet managed.

Accounts of the disaster commonly point out that Macondo, the name BP gave its ill-fated prospect, was the doomed town in One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. The commission goes further by including an eerily apposite quote from that book, in the context of BP’s difficulties drilling the promising but troublesome well: “It was as if God had decided to put to the test every capacity for surprise and was keeping the inhabitants of Macondo in a permanent alternation between excitement and disappointment, doubt and revelation, to such an extreme that no one knew for certain where the limits of reality lay.”

Reed and Fitzgerald’s book, which covers much of the same ground as the commission, is still worth a look for anyone interested in the story. Reed, a former London bureau chief of Business Week, is one of a select handful of journalists who really understand the international oil industry, and has followed BP for more than a decade.

In its conclusion, In Too Deep notes presciently that “another result of BP’s US problems is likely to be greater dependence on Russia” — an observation that anticipated the recently announced share-swap and joint venture with Rosneft, the state-controlled Russian group.

Making good use of their greater freedom compared to the commission, Reed and Fitzgerald are particularly deft in their judgments of character. Andy Inglis, the former head of BP’s division responsible for drilling Macondo, who has now left the company, is described as a “chunky teddy bear of a man”, an incongruous image for a senior oil executive but entirely fitting.

Brent Coon, the flamboyant Houston lawyer who was the scourge of BP over its previous great disaster, the 2005 Texas City refinery explosion, is vividly depicted in his “bachelor pad … sumptuously decorated in a kind of nouveau Henry VIII style with lots of dark carved wood, tapestries, massive leather couches and marble statuary”.

The two books’ conclusions about the roots of the disaster are similar. Both review BP’s troubled history in the United States, including (much smaller) oil spills in Alaska, and the ultimately unsuccessful attempt by Tony Hayward, the chief executive who resigned last summer, to put right BP’s safety culture and performance.

In explaining the accident itself, however, they part company. Where Reed and Fitzgerald tread carefully, the commission is very clear: “systemic failures” and poor decisions by BP – as well as Transocean and Halliburton, other companies involved in drilling the well – were responsible for a catastrophe that could have been avoided.

The commission’s two chairmen have both made clear that they think – rightly, in my view – that sooner or later the oil held in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere will be needed. If so, then we need to find ways that it can be extracted safely. Their policy recommendations are now being debated and have been attacked both for being too restrictive and too permissive of offshore drilling.

But with their clear-sighted, comprehensive and convincing account of the Deepwater Horizon spill, they have already made a vital contribution to preventing a similar disaster from happening again.

Ed Crooks is the
Financial Times’ US energy editor

© Copyright The Financial Times Ltd 2011