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Review: Disaster on the Horizon by Bob Cavnar

Disaster on the Horizon: High Stakes, High Risks, and the Story Behind the Deepwater Well Blowout
By Bob Cavnar
248 pp. Chelsea Green Publishing – Nov. 2010. $14.95.

It’s been nearly six months since BP Plc.’s runaway oil well in the Gulf of Mexico, which caused the largest unintentional* offshore spill on record, was finally deemed “effectively dead.” And those six months have brought almost as many books on the disaster. Bob Cavnar’s Disaster on the Horizon has a particular ring of authenticity, and I suspect that’s because he’s the only author so far to have spent a career in the oil and gas drilling business.

But at the same time, I have a feeling that any book written this soon after the disaster is jumping the gun, since the spill’s aftereffects have barely begun to rear their ugly heads. It will be decades, if not lifetimes, before we know the full impact on the Gulf’s ecosystem, the well-being of all who eat or harvest its seafood, the health of those who cleaned its beaches in loathsome conditions or the economies of the Gulf states.

Cavnar clearly gets this; he writes in the book’s concluding chapter, “We will likely never know the true extent of the damage to the Gulf.” He doesn’t pretend to have any answers regarding the spill’s long-term impacts. Rather, he brings his expertise to bear on the matter of what caused the explosion and the simultaneous failure of every one of the Horizon’s safety systems on the night of April 20, 2010, leaving 11 dead and 17 injured, as well as setting off the unprecedented spill.

The Deepwater Horizon spill was a horrendous dose of reality, bringing into sharp focus just how risky deepwater drilling remains even with today’s technology. That’s the gist of Disaster on the Horizon. The book reveals how the tools of deepwater drilling have grown more sophisticated but not really more reliable—Cavnar likens drilling on the seafloor to driving a car from the back seat. And technologies for cleaning up spills have advanced barely at all, since companies haven't wanted to spend the money to make the necessary investments. Worst of all, as much as we may now want to simply shut down all American offshore and deepwater production, that isn’t an option. Close to one-third of our domestic energy supply comes from offshore, and 80 percent of that third is from deep water.

In assembling the Horizon’s story, Cavnar relies largely on testimony given during the federal investigation into the disaster. When the Transocean Ltd.-owned and BP-operated Horizon came to grief, it was drilling an exploratory well in the Macondo Prospect, nearly a mile underwater off the Louisiana coast. Dubbed the “well from hell,” this well had been embattled from the start. It had severely tested the skill and nerves of the rig’s crew with gas kicks, hole problems, “dangerous lost circulation zones” and other early warning signs of trouble. And then, at just before 10 p.m. on April 20, for reasons still unknown, the critical blowout preventer (BOP) failed to seal off the well when it started gushing oil, leading to the fateful events of that night.

The failed BOP was only one in a long list of mechanical failures that night. The deadman, which automatically shuts in the well if communication is lost between the BOP and the rig, also was inoperable. Gas sensors were inhibited, and emergency shutdowns for engines weren’t working. Even the general alarm and emergency disconnect systems were out; and phones and radios were dead. Eleven months since that terrible day, experts still don’t know why all of these systems broke down.

The overarching failure, in Cavnar’s view, was one of human error. Hindered by extreme time pressure and BP's overly convoluted management structure, the crew that constructed the well casing used shoddy and inappropriate materials, exercised poor judgment and proceeded too hurriedly. “Add in silenced alarms and disabled safety systems,” says Cavnar, “and the result was inevitable.”

Cavnar is scathing with regard to BP’s conduct before, during and after the spill. He surveys the company’s long history of poor safety and its aversion to transparency. He sneers at the daisy-shaped logo and “Beyond Petroleum” slogan, among other examples of cynical, token greenwashing. And he gives many examples of the company dragging its heels during the disaster as it withheld critical information, lied outright to the public and violated government orders (such as the EPA’s order to limit use of the highly toxic Corexit dispersant).

One of Cavnar’s best witticisms is the chapter title “Top Cap, Top Hat, Top Kill, Capping Stack: Making It Up as We Go Along.” It beautifully encapsulates BP’s ineffectualness over the course of these failed attempts to stop the gusher. In another nice witticism, Cavnar scorns ill-fated CEO Tony Hayward as a “one-man gaffe machine" for his ignorant remarks and other blunders. (Hayward’s demise was sealed when he unthinkingly snapped to reporters, “There’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I would love my life back.”)

While BP receives the brunt of Cavnar’s ire, the U.S. government and its current administration don’t come out so well either. Cavnar faults the government for its slow response and its “collusion” with BP. He says that the government couldn’t really be tough on BP because it needed the company’s expertise in order to manage the spill. The two parties came to develop a mutually beneficial, co-dependent relationship. Journalists and members of the public who tried to visit oiled beaches were turned away by security guards and local cops who answered to BP.

Disaster on the Horizon has a good deal to say about what can be learned from this disaster. One poignant lesson is the importance of maintaining old manual skills even in today’s era of high technology, should that technology catastrophically fail. Another is that dramatic improvements are needed in the design of BOPs and the procedures for their use. For one thing, BOPs need to be made more easily accessible by the remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) that are standard on rigs, in light of how difficult it was for them to intervene in the Horizon spill. Cavnar also calls for regulatory reform to ensure that rigs are maintained and tested periodically. He's encouraged by pending legislation that he says would go a long way toward effecting these reforms, in addition to lifting the present $75 million oil spill liability cap.

With 30 years of experience in oil and gas drilling—in the course of which he’s been a CEO multiple times over—Cavnar is clearly well-qualified to write this book. He’s even had a brush with death of his own while working in the field, surviving a pit explosion at a gas well in East Texas at the age of 28 (he effectively hooks readers into the book with his account of this incident in the preface). He walked away with no lingering injuries or disfigurement, but the experience instilled in him an appreciation for just how easily things can go wrong in a drilling operation. Regardless of how well his book compares on a scholarly level with others written so far about the Horizon spill, it surely has them all beat on the level of insider knowledge and detail.

* The largest spill in history was actually intentional, when Saddam Hussein's troops opened the valves of Kuwaiti oil wells and piplelines during their retreat at the close of the 1991 Gulf War, releasing as much as 8 million barrels into the Persian Gulf (source: Jessica Marshall, "Gulf Oil Spill Not the Biggest Ever," Discovery News, Jun. 1, 2010, http://news.discovery.com/earth/gulf-oil-spill-ixtoc.html, accessed Mar. 6, 2011).

Editorial Notes: Frank Kaminski is an ardent Seattle peak oiler, a connoisseur of post-oil novels and a regular book reviewer for Energy Bulletin. Email him at frank.kaminski AT gmail.com; visit his site here. Website for the book: http://www.chelseagreen.com/bookstore/item/disaster_on_the_horizon:paperback

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