I was in Venice, Louisiana in late April and early May of this year, waiting for the first oil from the blowout of BP’s Macondo well to come ashore. Journalists from across the globe, politicians, fishermen, government bureaucrats, environmentalists, BP reps all milled about in a chaotic scrum. No one had good information. It seemed that once a rumor had passed through the crowd twice, it became accepted as fact.
I wish I’d had Bob Cavnar’s phone number then.
Mr. Cavnar is the author of Disaster on the Horizon, published this month by Chelsea Green. A 30-year veteran of the oil industry, who’s lived the industry from the oil patch to the boardroom, Mr. Cavnar writes about the BP blowout, oil technology, oil politics and energy policy in clear-eyed prose intelligible to those who only consume, rather than produce, petroleum products.
Who’s to blame? Anyone as blunt as Mr. Cavnar was not going to get into the rooms where the decisions were made, but his eye for details outsiders would miss and what he gleans from public sources point in ominous directions, such as:
- Transocean, which owned and operated the Deepwater Horizon, disabled or disconnected many of the alarms and emergency shutoff switches on the rig. Had those devices remained untampered, they might have shut down the engine that exploded when it encountered gas from the well. Alarms might have saved the lives of some of the 11 crewmembers that died. (Ironically, Transocean executives were aboard the rig that night to celebrate seven years of safe operations.)
- The US Coast Guard, whose marine safety mission has been supplanted by drug interdiction and homeland security, no longer had authority to oversee firefighting operations on the burning rig. No fire marshal was appointed to oversee workboats that poured water into the upper decks of the Deepwater Horizon, flooding them and likely the cause of the rig’s sinking.
- The Bush/Cheney administration, which spent eight years undermining the nation’s regulatory system, putting industry hacks in charge of “monitoring” their own interests and spinning the revolving door between government and corporate America at record speeds.
- The Obama administration, which took the blame for many Bush administration sins, but for its own part was too eager for the crisis to be over and the oil magically “gone,” too willing to let itself be gulled by BP, letting the oil company withhold crucial information and manipulate the technical end of the response for its own interests.
- BP, which dodged and weaved from Day One, always more concerned with limiting corporate liability that with limiting the size of the spill, protecting the Gulf of Mexico environment or playing straight with the federal government and the public. Mr. Cavnar asks why the drilling of relief wells was inexplicably halted for two months, that the much lauded “static kill” probably did not kill the well and asserts BP managed to outfox the feds by getting the well closed without ever taking an accurate measurement of the flow of oil. Since fines are based on the number of barrels spilled, no measurement means BP lawyers will hold the high ground when the court battle begins. (As marine conservationist Rick Steiner might say, “Lawyers yet unborn will be litigating this case.”)
I don’t agree with everything Bob Cavnar writes. Let’s not get crazy; he’s an oilman and I work for Greenpeace. But if his kind of honesty were better represented in the oil industry, our nation would have had a sensible energy policy decades ago. He also doesn’t forget (as we should not) that 11 men lost their lives on April 20, sacrificed to greed and arrogance. Some of that came from their industry; some from us, with our desire for cheap fuel without wanting to think of the danger and consequences that come with it.