After the BP oil spill, members of the news media photograph the work in progress… (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles…)
When a complex event sprawls out over months — an invasion, an election, a disaster — the struggle for a dominant narrative does likewise, publicly and sometimes painfully. Journalists and the public are fond of simple stories: an evil oil company recklessly cuts corners, kills 11 men, sends a multimillion-dollar vessel to the deep, and ruins the waters of an entire Gulf of Mexico.
History demands more time and rigor.
Few of the books that have been written about the BP oil leak that began last April 20 with the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig are good history, and time is the primary culprit.
All but one of the nine works examined here has in common a cinematic recounting of the rig explosion, largely cobbled in a "Rashomon" fashion from public testimony and published accounts. It's hard to fail at that part of the narrative, and none does. From there, however, nearly all veer toward the polemical, political and ideological.
Standing above them are "Fire on the Horizon: the Untold Story of the Gulf Oil Disaster" (Harper, March 2011), a book that deftly navigates around the good-guy versus bad-guy leitmotif; "A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea: The Race to Kill the BP Oil Gusher" (Simon & Schuster, April 2011) by Joel Achenbach of the Washington Post, which adds a candid view of the media's coverage; and "Drowning in Oil: BP and the Reckless Pursuit of Profit," by Loren C. Steffy (McGraw-Hill, November 2010), business columnist for the Houston Chronicle, who demonstrates what a veteran journalist in oil country can bring to bear on a story that was unfamiliar to the majority of the country.
"Fire on the Horizon," by longtime oil-rig mariner John Konrad and former Washington Post reporter Tom Shroder is the most cinematic of the lot. Artfully and compellingly told, the book marries a John McPhee feel for the technology to a Jon Krakauer sense of an adventure turned tragic.
"This is not a story of a rig, technology, the environment, corporate policy or government oversight, but it concerns each," Konrad writes in the author's note.
What may seem like a dodge turns out to be a brave choice, avoiding easy answers, adding subtlety and humanity to a story told largely from the deck of the rig. Konrad and Shroder ultimately let the facts speak for themselves.
First to be elbowed aside is the notion that BP didn't care about safety. In fact, BP and Transocean were freakishly obsessed with safety. Their definition of safety, though, was too narrow, a slip-and-fall mentality that gave short shrift to the multiple accident pathways endemic to complex technology.
Konrad, who skippered a rig similar to the Deepwater Horizon, left Transocean in a dispute over safety, so it comes as no surprise that the book pulls no punches on the topic. Decisions are laid bare along with culture clashes, including those between the original owner of the rig, R&B Falcon, and Transocean, which "cultivated a can-do cowboy swagger as a company that could accomplish the near impossible in the new frontier of ultra-deepwater drilling. 'We're never out of our depth' was the corporate motto."
Some of the obsession for occupational safety would be comic if not for the known end of this tale. BP was infamous for penalizing such activities as walking a stairway with a hot cup of coffee at its home office. There was a strict no-knives rule on the rig, which makes sense until the survivors of the wreck struggle to disengage their lifeboat from a rope that kept them tethered to the burning wreck.
"One year too many [safety violation] cards came in about missing hard hats, so the managers bought chin straps to keep the hard hats from blowing off in the wind. Of course most of the missing hard hats had nothing to do with wind, but that wasn't the point. The point was that Transocean was tracking the potential for injury and actively working to correct problems," the authors wryly note.
The Transocean "company men" on "the beach" were not only requiring the crew to wear company colors — red overalls, a battle the company ultimately lost — they were putting color-coded stickers on workers' hats and quarters to match their personality types. At a glance, you could tell if someone was a "thinker," a "feeler" or a "socializer," or had a strong ego and was pushy.
It would be interesting to know the color of stickers on the people who made major decisions such as how to interpret pressure tests, what kind of cement to use and how to finish off the final track of the well, with precious little review, and if some testimony is to be believed, a bit of chest bumping.