How a culture of corner-cutting and wishful-thinking spawned a disaster in offshore drilling
[Review published in MIT's The Tech]
The horrifying image of a muddy column of oil rushing incessantly from the earth's guts into the deep blue waters of the Gulf is forever branded in my memory. As I watched in disbelief the live video feed from the bottom of the sea, showing the Macondo well vomiting poison into the ocean, week after week, impervious to the incompetent attempts of BP to kill it, there was one question that kept bouncing in my head: how on earth did this happen?
Abrahm Lustgarten, an award-winning environmental journalist and recipient of the MacArthur Foundation's "genius grant," has the answer. His devastating exposé of BP's abysmal safety record details the role the company played in what is arguably the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history.
Run to Failure, Lustgarten's recent book, deconstructs how the Deepwater Horizon "accident" was decades in the making, how short-sighted managerial decisions led to a culture where rhetoric ("safety remains our number one priority") cloaked sloppy operations for the sake of profit. The story unfolds like a train wreck in slow-motion, from the rise of John Browne as The One inside British Petroleum in the late 1980s to the moment Andrea Fleytas radioed "Mayday!" from a burning platform in the Gulf on the night of April 20, 2010. The conclusion is as damning as it is terrifying: The great 2010 oil spill was the direct result of BP's quick and dirty approach to business. And although it was utterly avoidable, a similar or worse disaster may happen again.
Although Lustgarten divides his book formally into three parts, it makes more sense to think of it in two blocks. The first deals with the long-term "making" of the disaster, namely the broader management and regulatory aspects of the problem. Lustgarten discusses the background information on BP's managerial and cultural transformations towards increased efficiency (read: cost-cutting), its tense and dilatory interactions with ineffective regulators, and its vindictiveness against whistleblowers. It is also provides answers to questions such as why Barack Obama supported an expansion in offshore drilling, why BP was a key player in offshore drilling in the Gulf, and the origin of the company's atrocious safety culture.
The second block of the book dissects in painful detail the immediate causes of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. These last two chapters, in my opinion, pay for the whole book. The discussion of the perils of deep-water drilling in the Macondo well and the litany of tragic mistakes that invited an unnecessary disaster read like the engineering equivalent of a thriller. Lustgarten details the countless critical mistakes made by BP in the eve of the disaster, including a series of explanations of how things should have been done according to the industry's best practices, juxtaposed with what BP did instead in order to save time or money.
A careful reading of Run to Failure will leave the reader with a clear understanding of the immediate causes of the blowout -- the multiple "aberrational decisions" made by rogue managers, which could and should have been anticipated. But it will also help the reader understand why, as the official inquiry on the disaster puts it, the root causes of the spill were "systemic" and "might well recur" without significant reform in both industry practice and government policies. "Most of the mistakes and oversights at Macondo can be traced back to a single overarching failure - a failure of management," states the report. Sadly, as Lustgarten makes it clear in the closing pages, the regulation of the industry has not been improved enough -- not even close.
If you are short on time, Frontline's documentary The Spill will give you a taste of BP's lame safety culture leading up to the Deepwater Horizon disaster. But the deeper analysis that Run to Failure presents has no substitute: Lustgarten's narrative is so well-written, his argument so clear and detailed, and his message so urgent that I strongly encourage any person interested in American energy policy in the 21st century to read this book and take in its painful lessons. Learn them, I say, and stand up, because industry regulators haven't.