As author Joel Achenbach admits in A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea, "In the case of the Deepwater Horizon, many things had gone wrong, in succession, in a cascade of error and misfortune. So much had gone wrong that it's almost hard to know where to start."
But in this briskly informative and even-handed book, he begins at the beginning, April 20, 2010, a year ago this Wednesday. Late that evening, the Deepwater Horizon, a massive drilling rig perched above the Macondo oil well 5,000 feet below the surface of the northern Gulf of Mexico, experienced a catastrophic blowout. Multiple safety measures failed and an explosion demolished the rig, which burned and sank. Eleven of the 126 people aboard died.
The blowout unleashed an enormous gusher of oil that would billow into the waters of the gulf for five months, dominating the news and the nation's attention. No one knows exactly how much oil was spilled, but estimates are more than 4 million barrels. No one knows the ultimate effect the spill will have on the environment and economy of the gulf coast. And no one knows exactly why it all happened.
Achenbach, a Washington Post reporter and author of the Why Things Are series, can't fully answer those questions, but he does a clear, effective job of organizing much of what is known about the spill. We all watched it unfold, day by day, many of us with a sick fascination that bordered on obsession. Achenbach's book gathers those nightmarish fragments into a cohesive narrative.
In A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea, he addresses three questions: Why did the blowout occur? Why did it take so long to control it? And who did what during the monthslong effort to halt the disaster? In the book's epilogue, "An Engineered Planet," he asks one question he can answer with some certainty: Will something like this happen again? The answer, of course, is yes.
He begins by reviewing the history of Macondo, which workers called "the well from hell" long before the blowout, and digging into the technology of deepwater oil exploration, which proves to be a perilous mix of amazing engineering and corner-cutting under time and cost pressures: "Macondo was designed to be a bit . . . cheap." As for the infamous blowout preventer, it was "not only misplumbed, it had leaks and weak batteries. It was a jury-rigged device. It had been tweaked, poked, prodded, rearranged and reconfigured more often than an aging movie star."
Complicating those technological flaws were the multiple chains of command on the rig: BP, Transocean, Halliburton and others. As multiple investigations of the blowout would show, who was in charge of what, and who was responsible for what went wrong, was a tangled mess.
The same could be said of the response to the disaster. From the first days, BP and the federal government shared responsibility for that response under the Unified Area Command protocol, created in the 1960s and updated in 1990 in response to the Exxon Valdez spill. It required local, state and federal authorities to work with the private sector — the oil industry — to stop the flow and clean up the mess, but those entities, Achenbach demonstrates, were often at cross purposes, with the feds wanting to release more information and BP busily trying to limit it. Thousands of federal employees, from the Coast Guard to a team of elite scientists led by Energy Secretary Steven Chu, worked countless hours on solving the disaster, but the public perception was that the government wasn't involved enough.
Ideas for fixes gushed as energetically as the well did, but the trick was finding one that worked. A giant 98-ton cofferdam, lowered over the well, filled with methane hydrates so quickly at that depth that it began to rise, not sink, threatening ships on the surface. The junk kill, the top kill, the top hat — nothing stopped Macondo.
Cleaning up the oil, in water and on land, presented just as many problems. Early on, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Plaquemines Parish president Billy Nungesser promoted a harebrained scheme to build sand berms offshore to catch the oil — even thought the project would take at least six months and the oil was, at that point, already befouling the beaches. The feds said no. But so desperate did the search for solutions, at least symbolic ones, become that a month later the project was approved — at a cost of $220 million, and with the result of capturing a mere 1,000 barrels of oil.
A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea will not make anyone feel better about the BP spill. But with economic and political pressure on to resume deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, it's a book anyone who lives along its shores needs to read.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435.