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Blowout in the Gulf

Blowout in the Gulf: The BP Oil Spill Disaster and the Future of Energy in America

William R. Freudenburg
Robert Gramling
Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: MIT Press
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    Blowout in the Gulf
    Book Description:

    On April 20, 2010, the gigantic drilling rig Deepwater Horizon blew up in the Gulf of Mexico, killing eleven crew members and causing a massive eruption of oil from BP's Macondo well. For months, oil gushed into the Gulf, spreading death and destruction. Americans watched real-time video of the huge column of oil and gas spewing from the obviously failed "blowout preventer." What was missing, though, was the larger story of this disaster. In Blowout in the Gulf, energy experts William Freudenburg and Robert Gramling explain both the disaster and the decisions that led up to it. Blowout in the Gulf weaves a fascinating narrative of failures, missteps, and bad decisions, explaining why this oil spill was a disaster waiting to happen--and how making better energy choices will help prevent others like it.

    eISBN: 978-0-262-29412-6
    Subjects: Environmental Science, Physics

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. Prologue: The Deep-water Horror Zone
    (pp. ix-xiv)

    April 20, 2010, had been a pretty good day for the friends on the 26-foot craft,Endorfin. Fishing for blackfin tuna, they had caught their limit, and as night fell, they headed toward theDeepwater Horizon—a gigantic drilling rig that had been enjoying a pretty good day as well.

    Just seven months earlier, the big rig had set an all-time record for deepwater drilling, completing a well nearly six miles deep. The day before, one of the platform’s key contractors—Halliburton—had finished cementing the current well’s final casing, a key step in the process of getting the platform...

  4. 1 A Question for Our Time
    (pp. 1-8)

    When future historians look back on the first decade of the twenty-first century, they are likely to focus much of their attention on the dramatic images provided by the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Millions of Americans watched as the tanks rolled into Baghdad, where a small crowd of happy Iraqis cheered as the tanks pulled down the hollow statue of Saddam Hussein. Soon after that, unfortunately, Americans also learned about less-happy Iraqis who were exploding home-made bombs and shooting rocket-propelled grenades at some of those very same tanks.

    Far less visible or dramatic is likely to be the...

  5. 2 The Macondo Mess
    (pp. 9-20)

    Officially speaking, BP’s drilling was taking place in a location that the U.S. Department of the Interior calls “MC 252”—government-speak for “Mississippi Canyon block 252.” In practice, though, most drilling operations are remembered through their code names, which simplify the protection of confidentiality during early stages of exploration, then provide easier-to-remember names later on. Some of the names come from people (Holly, Heather), others from drinks or fish (Cognac, Marlin), and still others from cartoon characters (Rocky, Bullwinkle). The name of the ill-fated BP project, though, first became known through one of the most important literary works of the...

  6. 3 Stored Sunlight and Its Risks
    (pp. 21-62)

    As we think about that rapidly disappearing oil, it might be helpful to have at least an English-language understanding of how it got to be there in the first place. The basic starting point is that, like other forms of fuel, oil and gas can be thought of as a special form of stored sunlight, or more specifically, photosynthesis—the process through which plants use sunlight to produce organic material, such as leaves, straw, wood, or cellulose. Oil, gas, and all other fossil fuels are left-over remnants from plants, from animals that ate the plants, and from the animals that...

  7. 4 Colonel of an Industry
    (pp. 63-74)

    The founders of the United States had no way of knowing it, but their new nation was born with a treasure chest in the basement. Below the rich natural resources that were visible on the surface, the territories that would ultimately be included in these United States were the home to some of the world’s richest deposits of one of the world’s most valuable resources—petroleum. It just took the nation’s founders, and their descendants, some time to figure that out.

    For thousands of years before the descendants of Europeans came to North America, the native peoples on the continent...

  8. 5 Barons and Barrels
    (pp. 75-90)

    For the barons of industry who took over American oil production in the era after the Civil War, the usual concern had little to do with overadaptation; they wanted to encourage the growth of oil consumption. The most influential oil baron of all—John D. Rockefeller, Sr.—was the man who played that game better than anyone else.

    Rockefeller had not just a great deal of business acumen but, in many ways, a strong moral code. He worked very long hours, right from the days when he began his business career as a mere accountant in Cleveland, up to the...

  9. 6 Off the Edge in All Directions
    (pp. 91-112)

    Just a few years before the discovery at Spindletop, the world would experience another technological breakthrough in oil drilling, although it had a significance that only started to become more clear about fifty years later—the drilling of the first “offshore” oil wells, in 1898. The location was Summerland, California, less than ten miles away from where the Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969 would occur.

    Summerland had already seen successful oil and gas wells onshore; a local story holds that, when baseball players wanted to continue their game after sunset, they pounded a pipe into the ground and simply...

  10. 7 “Energy Independence”
    (pp. 113-128)

    More than two decades ago, during the last period when large numbers of Americans were paying much attention to their energy uses, a book by Gibbons and Chandler noted, “While it may not be necessary to go all the way back to creation to begin an analysis of energy, more is called for than the usual ‘Beginning with the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973.’” Still, aside from those who worked for the oil industry, most Americans seem to have paid little attention to petroleum until what is often remembered as “the” energy crisis—the sudden spike in energy prices in...

  11. 8 To Know Us Is to Love Us?
    (pp. 129-152)

    In 1990—ten years after the start of the policies that had been put in place by James Watt, and almost exactly twenty years before the blowout of theDeepwater Horizon—the two of us started a small pilot study for the very agency that James Watt had shaped to implement his policies, namely the U.S. Minerals Management Service. At the time, one of us had served for several years on that agency’s own Scientific Advisory Committee, and the other was familiar with the agency from having lived in southern Louisiana and from having served on an independent review committee...

  12. 9 Cleaning Up
    (pp. 153-170)

    Some forty years ago, after the Santa Barbara oil spill, a friend of ours wrote about the striking disjuncture between the technology available for oil drilling—already sophisticated and expensive at that time—versus the distinctly low-tech options that were available for cleaning up the spill. The drilling and production were being carried out with some of the most precise equipment ever invented, while the so-called clean-up was being done with straw, rakes, shovels and garbage cans. During most of the time when we were writing this book, efforts were still underway to stop and “clean up” the blowout from...

  13. 10 Today and Tomorrow
    (pp. 171-190)

    Contrary to the superficial impression that expanded offshore oil drilling would be “good for the economy,” the reality is that U.S. energy policies over the past quarter-century have conferred most of their benefits to a handful of the world’s largest oil companies, doing so while offering little if any visible advantage for the larger economy, and clearly creating losses for the federal treasury—continuing to do so during decades of record federal budget deficits. Rather than “helping the economy,” federal policies appear to have emphasized the transfer of valuable, resource-rich undersea lands from the general public to a handful of...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 191-202)
  15. References
    (pp. 203-224)
  16. Index
    (pp. 225-254)