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Energy Bulletin Review: Disaster on the Horizon

by Frank Kaminski

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—including many years aboard rigs like the doomed Deepwater Horizon.

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. Continue reading this review at Energy Bulletin. Bob Cavnar’s Disaster on the Horizon: High Stakes, High Risks, and the Story Behind the Deepwater Well Blowout, is available now.

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