BP's major environmental catastrophe could have been prevented with better management. E&T talks to author Loren C Steffy, whose new book explains what went wrong.
'My book is a cautionary tale for any engineering-intensive company,' says Loren C Steffy. 'It isn't a screed against offshore drilling or the oil industry. I believe offshore drilling must continue. But it has to be done safely.'
Steffy is the author of 'Drowning in Oil', an exhaustively researched, in-depth examination of how the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster was directly caused, not by failings in technology, but by a general lack of corporate responsibility and government oversight.
The biggest offshore oil spill in US history, the series of events that led from the blowout became a public relations nightmare for BP. But this was nothing compared with the general state of malaise that was revealed to be embedded in the company's operating principle.
'Drowning in Oil' is a vital work of investigative journalism that casts much-needed light onto the inner workings of an immense corporation, whose attitude to the process of due diligence is called into question time after time.
Deepwater Horizon made the headlines the world over, dominating the broadsheets and rolling news TV stations. For journalists, it was a multi-dimensional story that had everything.
It's often said that engineering stories only make the news for the wrong reasons, but here was a golden opportunity for the media to vent its spleen at Big Business.
It was, in fact, manna from heaven, having two killer ingredients guaranteed to keep it high on the news agenda for weeks on end. First, there was the unfolding environmental catastrophe that would continue to shock the world, while hapless and inefficient corporate bigwigs looked on in impotent dismay.
Second, here at long last was a channel for directing long-sublimated anger at faceless multinationals; the final proof, if proof were needed, that their touchy-feely sustainability manifestos were nothing but 'greenwash'.
The cherry on the bun was that the 'faceless' had a face, in the form of BP chief executive Tony Hayward. Here was a man who seemed to have no instinctive feeling for prevailing public sentiment. Hayward's air of detached disdain for how a leader should behave in a time of crisis caused outrage far beyond the usual environmental activism lobby. A dutiful, and in no way reluctant, press saw to it that sufficient pressure was applied for Hayward's head to roll.
On 20 April 2010 a series of explosions rocked Deepwater Horizon, the submersible drilling platform leased by BP, 40 miles off the Louisiana coast in the Gulf of Mexico. As Steffy succinctly puts it: 'The ensuing inferno claimed 11 lives, and it would rage uncontained for two days, until its wreckage sank to a final resting place nearly a mile beneath the waves.'
Although there is a huge environmental story here, and while he accepts that capping the well was the sternest of engineering challenges, what Steffy is interested in is how the disaster took place in the wake of cost-cutting at BP, particularly under the guidance of two former CEOs, John Browne and Tony Hayward. The gaffe-prone Hayward's approach to the crisis – which included taking a holiday to go sailing while the disaster raged – seems to neatly sum up BP's corporate arrogance.
As the business columnist for the Houston Chronicle, Steffy was already tracking BP, having covered the earlier Texas City refinery explosion. 'That put BP squarely on my radar,' Steffy says, indicating his intention to make his book a business title from the start. Explaining its subtitle – 'BP and the reckless pursuit of profit' – the author is asserting his claim that the accident was only part of the wider story: 'I told my editors that it was a symptom of the larger story that involved how BP's culture emphasised profits over safety and maintenance.'
'Drowning in Oil' came together 'very quickly', taking only two months to write. 'I had a big advantage in that I'd covered BP since 2005, and I had a lot of interviews already in my notebook. I had interviewed Tony Hayward about three times previously, and that made the reporting a lot easier.'
Even so, it can't have been an easy task, writing what was inevitably going to be a controversial book under the scrutiny of a damage-control-conscious petrochemical multinational?
'I didn't have a lot of doors slammed in my face. I suspect the folks at BP had a pretty good idea of what the book was going to say. My biggest regret was that I couldn't get the company to let me interview the engineers who worked on responding to the spill. Those folks sacrificed months of their lives. It was a very heroic and dramatic effort, and I think it was an important aspect of the story that's been lost.'
I ask Steffy if, in the course of preparing such an outspoken manuscript about such a powerful organisation, there was ever any doubt in his mind as to whether he should stick his neck out and go to print. Had the book been watered down in any way by over-cautious editors or risk-averse legal people? 'The lawyers didn't remove anything, although we did have some discussions about wording.
'There may have been a few tweaks here or there, but nothing major. I had extensive documents to back up my assertions.'
Although primarily a business book about an engineering company, rather than an engineering book that happens to be about big business, it simply isn't possible to comment on 'Drowning in Oil' without assessing the impact such a disaster could have on the ecosystem of the Gulf of Mexico.
When pressed for a response on the long-term environmental effect of Deepwater Horizon, Steffy finds it difficult to make accurate predictions.
'The Gulf is resilient, and it has already bounced back better than many scientists had hoped. And steps taken by BP and the state and federal government did help reduce the environmental impact.'
He points out that the leak occurred far from the shore, and the water is warm, factors that have helped to contain the oil and to break it down. But, as he says, there remains a vast quantity of oil settled on the seafloor. 'Fishermen are also concerned about the amount of chemical dispersants used and what effect they may have on sea lifecycles. It will probably be several more years before we really know the full impact.'
Steffy believes that oil exploration can be done responsibly and safely, but 'the industry and the public at large can't afford to lose sight of the huge costs and consequences that can result from not taking the proper cautions'.
So, no regrets? 'I never wondered why I was doing this. It's an important story, and I'm glad I had a chance to tell it.' *
Drowning in Oil, by Loren C Steffy is published by McGraw-Hill, £19.99