On April 20, 2010, people the world over learned that oil platforms, like oil tankers, oil fields and oil barons, have names. That day, an offshore rig in the Gulf of Mexico, Deepwater Horizon, exploded. Eleven workers died. In subsequent days—and months afterward—Deepwater Horizon would fill the news with tales of dead and threatened fish, marine mammals and birds; of beachfront communities deserted by vacationers; of malfeasance and collusion. We learned of astonishing levels of corruption among the agencies charged with monitoring the oil industry, of corporate arrogance in the face of the “small people” and of round-robin finger-pointing.
Four months later, the well that had been gushing millions of gallons of oil from the floor of the Gulf of Mexico was finally sealed and the spill stopped. So, in the mainstream, did the news, with only the occasional piece still bubbling up in the papers, most recently, a federal judge ordering BP’s claims administrator to quit contending that he was impartial.
Deepwater Horizon’s effects will be long felt—environmentally, as the Gulf struggles to recover; economically, as the world oil market lurches from one crisis to the next; legally, as lawsuits make their way through the courts, a process sure to take on the contours of a modern Bleak House. Meanwhile, two new books are keeping the story of Deepwater Horizon fresh—and bringing underreported news into the story.
A few months ago, John Konrad, a former oil rig captain and onetime employee of Deepwater Horizon’s owner, was in New Orleans covering the early hearings on the disaster for his maritime blog, gcaptain.com. Konrad found himself explaining the technology of offshore oil drilling to the assembled reporters there, helping, as he says, “decrypt the meaning of terms like ‘BOP’ and ‘Negative Pressure Test,’ ” when NPR reporter Joe Shapiro suggested that he write a book.
Konrad teamed with Washington Post writer and editor Tom Shroder and did just that with Fire on the Horizon. As disaster books go, it brings an unusually thorough view of the many weak links in the system. But, Konrad urges, it’s not just a failed blowout preventer at the bottom of the ocean that we can pinpoint. Instead, he says, “The underlying cause of this incident is no different from the financial crisis or housing bubble—it’s human behavior in a time of unprecedented energy prices and technological sophistication.”
Carl Safina, well known for his writings about the ocean, including the recently published View from Lazy Point, had at the same time been contemplating a book about the disaster—though, he tells us that he “wasn’t sure what the book should be because no one knew how the whole event would play out.” A chance meeting with an interested editor led to a contract for what would become A Sea in Flames and to a whirlwind of research trips and a campaign of coming up to speed on the astonishing technology that underlies deep-sea drilling.
Like Konrad and Shroder, Safina also finds that the story of Deepwater Horizon is all too human. “What impressed me most,” he tells Kirkus, “was the total unpreparedness for the event, followed by the widespread inanity of the responses. So the book became a description of why the well was allowed to blow out (a series of incredible misjudgments by several companies all contributed), and a sort of topography of the emotional, scientific, political and social landscape of the season that became the totality of the event. The blowout is as much, maybe more, about how people reacted emotionally to the idea of the oil, compared to the actual oil itself.”
Both books are long on seeking to assign responsibility—or blame—for the disaster, and both find it in a complex chain of events, technical failings, miscommunications and clashing cultures. In the end, both books seek to avoid abstractions. Konrad and Shroder are particularly good in portraying the efforts of the men and women of the Coast Guard and other rescue services in confronting a challenge that none had faced before—for, though its technology was out of date, Deepwater Horizon had scooped out the deepest oil well in history, six and a half miles down.
As Safina writes, the story of the Deepwater Horizon boils down to 11 dead men, leaving nine widows and 21 fatherless children, along with 17 injured workers. It boils down to the millions of people whose lives along the Gulf Coast were disrupted and, finally, to every one of us who are implicated in the oil economy.
Deepwater Horizon is far from the first accident to devastate the Gulf of Mexico, and it will take decades to undo the damage—if it can be undone. Yet the incident probably won’t change anything—we will continue consuming oil, we’ll forget about the catastrophe, and eventually another disaster will befall us. Notes Safina, the blowout of a Mexican oil well in 1979 prefigured Deepwater Horizon in many particulars, and yet absolutely no new improvements were put in place in its aftermath—everyone was too busy thinking about the next bonanza to pay much attention.
As Shroder observes, “The potential profits of oil exploration and production are so enormous that it drives us to push the technological envelope to develop resources that we could never have dreamed of exploiting before. The great need for oil and the great rewards have made risk-taking inevitable. The longer people go without a disaster, the more risks they will be willing to take—the more risk-taking will seem a rational course of action—until another disaster becomes inevitable.”