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

Hugh Gorman on a narrative that places the BP Gulf oil spill in context with the US' energy policy

January 6, 2011

In Blowout in the Gulf, William Freudenburg and Robert Gramling put forth the thesis that the insatiable demand for oil in the US has pushed the country into dangerous waters, both literally and figuratively. They point to the extraction and transportation of oil from deposits in northern Alaska, entanglements in the Middle East and deepwater drilling as all part of a larger pattern; one in which the need to secure oil has pushed US society into embracing highly risky activities. The BP oil spill earlier this year in the Gulf of Mexico, they argue, should be interpreted in this context, rather than as an isolated incident of technological failure. They suggest that the spill should be viewed as a warning signal that something is wrong with US energy policy.

The general thesis is not a new one, but Freudenburg and Gramling are the right people to apply it to the BP spill. Both have written extensively about the offshore oil industry in the Gulf of Mexico and the risks associated with that industry. By weaving the specifics of what happened in the Gulf earlier this year with a broader history of the oil industry, they attempt to integrate two narratives - one associated with events surrounding the blowout and one dealing with the larger issue of US energy policy - into a single book. For the most part, they succeed.

Why did the well being drilled by BP at the offshore location known as MC-p 252 (Mississippi Canyon, block 252) fail and what can be done to reduce the chances of such blowouts occurring in the future? An explanation focusing only on the immediate causes, with full attention on the technical decisions and events leading up to the fiery destruction of the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig and on the subsequent release of 200 million gallons of crude oil into the waters of the northern Gulf of Mexico, would be interesting but limited.

An explanation focusing only on the political economy of oil would be relevant to the ongoing public debate over the future of US energy policy, but would do little to place the BP spill in perspective. In addressing the question at both scales, Freudenburg and Gramling continually remind readers that the larger issue, US energy policy, should not be ignored as decision-makers proceed in addressing the more immediate concerns surrounding offshore drilling.

For readers interested in knowing more about events leading up to the spill, Blowout in the Gulf provides a solid description of what is now known. The authors examine the technology, geology, management decisions and regulatory actions involved, and they also provide enough background for general readers to digest these specifics.

In the end, they point to a number of incidents that should have served as red flags to any corporate risk manager or inspector with regulatory authority. Those red flags include BP's refinery operation accounting for nearly half (862) of all officially recognised safety violations in the US between 2007 and early 2010; an error-filled oil spill response plan hastily assembled from previous documents; and a series of "precursor" incidents directly related to the blowout, including the disabling of safety systems, ignoring problems with the blowout protector, and taking shortcuts when removing the drilling fluid and cementing the well's casing in place.

Of course, red flags are valuable only if someone with authority is looking for them. Therefore, Freudenburg and Gramling turn much of their attention to the Minerals Management Service (MMS), the organisation in the US Department of the Interior charged with regulating offshore development. But the regulatory mandate of the MMS comes into direct conflict with another of its responsibilities, which is to promote offshore development.

The authors, who once carried out a study for the MMS on public perceptions of risk, portray the agency as taking its regulatory role far less seriously than its development role. Of course, the sex-and-drugs scandal involving cosy relationships between MMS and oil company employees, which came to light via a federal investigation in 2008, makes it relatively easy to paint that picture.

Connecting the oil industry's poorly regulated and technologically risky push into the deeper waters of the Gulf of Mexico to an unsound national energy policy is a more difficult case to make. In general, Freudenburg and Gramling approach this task by pointing to policy-scale red flags that have largely been ignored by federal policymakers and, for that matter, by the US public.

Examples of such red flags include the transition of the US from a net oil exporter to a net oil importer; the complete failure of the strategy devised by oil companies to effectively clean up oil spills as shown by the Santa Barbara spill of 1969; the lack of any real change in oil spill clean-up technology since then (while drilling technology, in contrast, has advanced by leaps and bounds); the failure of the 1973 Opec oil embargo to encourage any lasting change in US energy policy; and the tumultuous history of US offshore leasing policy, with the dual role of the MMS being just one of the warning signals in this category.

Integrating this material into a single argument is a challenge -and there are some gaps in their efforts to make connections - but the general point comes through loud and clear: as long as the US depends on petroleum to function, the need to secure it will continue to encourage risky practices.

After examining the immediate and systemic causes of the spill, Freudenburg and Gramling ask what can and should be done to prevent such occurrences in the future. Again, they examine the question at two different scales, both in terms of narrow regulation focused on preventing spills while allowing deepwater drilling, and in terms of broader change in US energy policy.

The narrow, technical discussion about how to make deepwater drilling less risky is quite interesting. For example, they note that the airline industry has developed a culture highly sensitive to risk. When a component fails, the cause is identified and every similar component in service is tracked down and, if appropriate, redesigned and replaced. What would it take to develop that culture in the offshore oil industry?

They point to several practical and, one would assume, well-known methods for improving blowout protectors. In addition, they suggest giving an agency with no particular interest in the oil industry, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in the US Department of Labor, more authority over ensuring the safety of offshore drilling practices. Simply dividing the MMS into separate regulatory and development agencies is not going to alter the regulatory culture that is already in place.

In the end, though, the authors conclude that none of these changes will matter in the long term unless changes also occur at higher levels of policy. They suggest policy changes that encourage conservation rather than faster extraction; encourage the development of new ways to provide the same services provided by petroleum; and "end the habit of making reserves seem artificially cheap".

Is what Freudenburg and Gramling argue accurate? Is it difficult to discourage risky technological practices while embracing unsound policies at the national level? Although I agree with their conclusion (that the two scales are connected), I suspect that readers hostile to a fundamental restructuring of US energy policy will be unconvinced. At the same time, anybody who reads this book will be less likely to completely separate the two issues in the future.

THE AUTHORS

Amateur woodworkers and fishing enthusiasts William R. Freudenburg and Robert Gramling have worked on risk management challenges and offshore oil issues for more than 30 years.

Gramling earned a bachelor's degree in social welfare, a master's in social science and a PhD in sociology from Florida State University before joining the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. He has remained there for 40 years, and now holds the post of professor of sociology and director of its Center for Socioeconomic Research.

Freudenburg received a bachelor's degree in sociology from the University of Nebraska and went on to Yale University for advanced study. Since 2002, he has been Dehlsen professor of environmental studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He was honoured last month with a day-long symposium - dubbed "Freudenfest 2010" - celebrating his contributions to sociology, environmental studies and society.

He likes to collect and correct misspellings of his name, his favourite being "Frighten burg". As an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin, he covered his office door in a selection of misspellings, all of them different.

Chloe Darracott-Cankovic

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

By William R. Freudenburg and Robert Gramling

MIT Press, 240pp, £14.95

ISBN 9780262015837

Published 13 December 2010

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