Book Review: Deepwater Horizon
A Systems Analysis of the Macondo Disaster
by Earl Boebert and James M. Blossom
Harvard University Press, 2016
The disaster that overtook the Deepwater Horizon floating oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010 became a dark entry in the record books: the worst human-made such disaster in Gulf history. And in late September 2016 it endures another epic trial: it becomes a multimillion-dollar Hollywood blockbuster starring Mark Wahlberg. On the eve of that dubious transformation comes this somber new book from Harvard University Press, Deepwater Horizon: A Systems Analysis of the Macondo Disaster, by Earl Boebert and James Blossom.
Most iconic disasters have equally iconic prose renditions – books that capture the action and human drama, the minutiae and the historical significance of the event, books like Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air or George Stewart’s Ordeal by Hunger or the granddaddy of them all, Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember. The Deepwater Horizon disaster, in which 11 crew members were killed, dozens more injured, and the Gulf of Mexico subjected to worst oil spill in its history, is a prime candidate for such a book.
This isn’t that book, but it also doesn’t try to be, and of course in most ways it’s a far more valuable book than such a popular account could ever be. Boebert and Blossom aren’t narrative historians; they’re both scientists, with deep understandings of the oil-extraction industry and the elemental forces of nature it contends with on a regular basis in order to provide a profit for its shareholders. They quite accurately call their book a case study, and they examine every aspect of the 2010 disaster, in which an unexpected eruption of water, pumping sludge, and highly flammable gas shot through the Gulf’s Macondo well, ripped apart the rig’s safety equipment, and ignited into a fireball that could be seen for miles against the warm night sky. Some workers were killed instantly, others jumped from the rig into the burning water far below, the drilling platform sank, and the well pumped oil into the Gulf for months until it could be stopped up.
Our authors have as their main goal a careful probing of what went wrong at every level of the operation, and the end results of their investigation reads like just what it is: an extremely thorough in-house analysis. It’s endlessly technical, often recondite, and replete with technical jargon. The fact that Harvard University Press is publishing it for a general readership is a curious testament to their faith in the public’s appetite for facts free of stage-dressing.
Some of the conclusions of the study could have been guessed long before Deepwater Horizon came anywhere near the Macondo site. “The evolutionary of off-shore technology,” our authors diplomatically put it, straining at times not to use the word “cheap,” much less the word “callous,” “is the result of the extreme technical conservatism of the oil industry – a conservatism driven by the capital-intensive nature of the business, the volatility of oil prices, and the hazardous nature of the activities.” The Deepwater Horizon, which was owned by Transocean and leased by BP, was run by a byzantine combination of quasi-military precision and quasi-autocratic fiat, with little transparency and, thanks to shoddy record-keeping, even less after-the-fact accountability (according to our authors, “Until survivable recording of such activities is the norm, the forensic capability of offshore drilling will remain firmly in the era of the Titanic”). And that entire top-heavy command structure had one goal in mind, as Boebert and Blossom somewhat thickly put it:
At the corporate level, the lesson for executives and managers is that the perceived obligation to pay stockholders dividends exacts an opportunity cost borne by those who are responsible – directly or indirectly – for keeping the corporation away from the Edge. The result is an essential tension between the part of the corporation tasked with financial performance and the individuals and organizational elements that must ensure safety.
“The Edge” referred to there is the concept inherent in dangerous activities like offshore oil drilling: the wire-thin line between business as usual and the end of the world. “A few minutes before 10 pm on the night of April 20, crew members of the Horizon were going about their business, on and in the giant machine that was both their workplace and their home,” our authors write. “A few minutes after 10 pm, they were trying to escape a nightmare of darkness, flame, pain, and terror.”
Executives, managers, and stockholders make tempting and easy targets, but it’s also true that Deepwater Horizon, like so many other doomed vessels before it, was deeply unlucky when luck mattered most. Disaster control and blowout equipment failed; systems designed to foresee or minimize cataclysmic incidents like this serially failed to work. And the destruction of the rig and the injuries and deaths were only the beginning of the bad luck in this case; the damage to the Gulf’s ecosystem was widespread, savage, and long-lasting.
All the death and damage will soon be racking up impressive box office sales on the big screen, and the story will get its immortal treatment in prose too, without a doubt. But readers wanting to know just what happened and why in the Deepwater Horizon disaster will never find a better book than this case study.