[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]
Riki Ott, Host:
After having spent five months in the Gulf, I decided to read Bob Cavnar’s book of the story behind the Deepwater well blowout starting with chapter 7 on the “BP-government merger.” This was one of the most troubling twists in events that I had witnessed in the Gulf. I figured if he could shed some light on this, then maybe he would have frank insights on how we got into this mess – beyond the human error – and how we might avoid another.
Cavnar is, after all, an oilman with 30 years of experience in drilling and production operations, and in management of private and public companies, and I am an Alaska fisherman and survivor of the Exxon Valdez oil spill; hence, my skepticism.
The first page of chapter 7 convinced me that Disaster on the Horizon would be worth the read. “It was clear that the government didn’t have the expertise to manage the blowout on the seafloor and the beaches were being guarded by both private and local government officials who answered to BP.”
Check. This situation had caused puzzled local residents to ask at community forums, “Why is BP in charge? I thought this was America.”
Cavnar went on: “A co-dependent relationship was formed that went beyond traditional industry-government coziness.” Agreed. Although I was familiar with this problem from nearly 25 years of work to increase oil industry accountability in Alaska, what I saw in the Gulf was shockingly disorienting. According to Cavnar, the BP-government merger gelled on June 16 when President Obama, Tony Hayward, and the BP chairman agreed that BP would commit $20 billion over four years to cover damages and cleanup. That $20 billion, it turns out, was backed with US assets. In other words, Cavnar says, “the deal guarantees that BP will remain viable in the US since they need assets to pay the costs.”
So much for the free market, as Cavnar points out. So much also, in my opinion, for any hope that polluters – or criminals in BP’s case – will take U.S. environmental laws (or politicians) seriously. Obama’s win-win arrangement signals that America’s door is wide open for oil business, and if you screw up, no matter if you put thousands of “small people” in the Gulf out of work, the oil company will be protected and allowed to continue its business. Oil at all costs. The losers are the American people. (I could not help but think of Scotland, where the government maintains a Rogues’ Gallery of oil tankers. Companies that take too many risks or have too many close-calls are no longer welcome.)
I went back to the beginning of the book. Cavnar describes in gripping detail the scene of the blowout, then shares several insights on the nuts-and-bolts of the disaster. He emphasizes throughout the book that, in the oil patch, complacency and success breed disaster. For example, just hours before the blowout, Transocean and BP executives had recognized the 7-year safety record on the rig. Ironically, a few hours before the Exxon Valdez, there was a similar celebration for one billion barrels of oil transported without a major spill. Oops.
I was struck by two other factoids among the many details. So-called “blowout preventers” (BOPs) fail. A lot. Cavnar describes a 2009 industry study of 15,000 wells drilled in North America and the North Sea. Of the 11 cases where BOPs were activated, only 6 were successful in shutting in the well and preventing oil spills. That’s a 45 percent failure rate! If there was a fire station in my neighborhood and it only responded 50 percent the time, I’d move.
But no. Somehow this dismal safety record passed muster with the federal regulators. It gets worse. The old-Minerals-Management-Service-by-a-new-accronym, BOEMRE (pronounced “bummer” in Louisiana) decided to actually test the BOPs in the two relief wells that were drilled in response to the BP blowout. According to Cavnar, these two BOPs failed four tests. Cavnar wrote, “Transocean was preparing to splash faulty BOPs for blowout prevention on relief wells being drilled to kill a blowout caused by a faulty BOP. Jesus.”
Okay by now I’m kind of liking Cavnar. He admits that the space-age deepwater oil drilling technology has really leap-frogged beyond human ability to control it – and he gives a number of harrowing near-calamities to prove his point. He states the obvious: “There is little (or no) margin for error in deepwater…” And he describes the wild-west attitude of the oil and gas industry – how it gambles with safety, games with politicians (and presidents), and captures regulatory agencies with ease without any thought that the shortcuts companies take to enhance profits might affect other people’s lives. Like the 11 men incinerated on the Horizon and their families, or like all of the families and businesses in the Gulf of Mexico (or Alaska), or ditto if this had happened in your backyard.
Cavnar observes it seems that the oil industry has “learned little from this disaster or the previous ones, except for how to protect their public image.” I witnessed first-hand the great Gulf cover up. By controlling the story, BP was able to make the disaster appear less than it was and so minimize its liability in terms of fines and penalties and, more importantly, public outrage and demands for stricter regulations and laws.
In the end, Cavnar calls on us “to elect leaders who will take the necessary steps toward reform…” Elected leaders? I think not. Our leaders will only protect us if they hear one loud chorus from the people – like what happened in the 1970s after the Santa Barbara blowout and then Congress passed laws to better protect the environment or in 1990 when President H.W. Bush placed a 10-year blanket moratorium on new area offshore leasing in response to environmental concerns.
I hope Disaster on the Horizon motivates Americans to get informed and demand a full halt to deepwater oil production because the risks clearly outweigh the benefits, and because, as Cavnar points out, it is time for society “to move beyond our comfortable yet dangerous dependence on a fossil-fuel economy.”