Drowning in Oil: BP & the Reckless Pursuit of Profit

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The definitive account of how BP's win-at-all-costs culture led to this era's greatest industrial catastrophe

"A carefully and powerfully written story."

Financial Times

"When an author uses a loaded word like 'reckless' in a book's title, the burden of proof is high. . . . Steffy meets the burden by demonstrating that corporate behemoth BP (formerly British Petroleum) could have prevented the 11 deaths on April 20, 2010, aboard the Deepwater Horizon. . . . The deaths and ...

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Drowning in Oil: BP & the Reckless Pursuit of Profit

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The definitive account of how BP's win-at-all-costs culture led to this era's greatest industrial catastrophe

"A carefully and powerfully written story."

Financial Times

"When an author uses a loaded word like 'reckless' in a book's title, the burden of proof is high. . . . Steffy meets the burden by demonstrating that corporate behemoth BP (formerly British Petroleum) could have prevented the 11 deaths on April 20, 2010, aboard the Deepwater Horizon. . . . The deaths and the gigantic oil spill following the sinking of Deepwater Horizon will surely become a landmark of corporate ineptness and greed for the remainder of human history, thanks in part to Steffy's remarkable account."

San Antonio Express-News

"Steffy has produced a fascinating, gripping, revealing account. . . . The book details events aboard the Deepwater Horizon in April of 2010 to start, but it digs deeper into what is revealed as a culture of cost-cutting boiling over within BP. Steffy documents years of incidents and poor management decisions, detailing the rise of key characters like John Browne and Tony Hayward alongside riveting outlines of horrifying events in Texas City and at other BP locations. . . . The book reads like fiction at times, with the author's heavily-detailed accounts of explosions and conversations creating vivid, nearly fantastical images. The tragic history of BP is all-too-real, though, as the lost lives and environmental damage certainly attest to.. . . Steffy is a thorough, straightforward author. His concerns largely lie with the loss of life and the general culture of cost-cutting of BP, painting an apt and terrifying picture of rampant, steady, costly neglect."

Seattle Post Intelligencer

"Steffy provides valuable insight and crucial corporate context in explaining how so much oil ended up in the Gulf of Mexico."


"[Steffy's] investigations reveal a corporate culture of cost-cutting initiatives that put profits ahead of workers' lives and the environment, with repeated safety violations and an abysmal accident history. . . . Steffy details how, in the context of BP's record, the disaster was just part of a pattern of poor decision making in the relentless pursuit by BP to become the largest and most profitable oil company in the world."


About the Book

As night settled on April 20, 2010, a series of explosions rocked Deepwater Horizon, the immense semisubmersible drilling platform leased by British Petroleum, located 40 miles off the Louisiana coast. 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. On the ocean floor, the unit's wellhead erupted. Over the next ten weeks, as repeated attempts to cap the geyser failed, an estimated 200 million gallons of oil—the equivalent of 20 Exxon Valdez spills—spewed into the Gulf of Mexico, eventually lapping up on beaches as far away as Florida.

Drowning in Oil, by award-winning Houston Chronicle business reporter and columnist Loren Steffy—considered by many to be the writer with the best access to the story—is an unprecedented and gripping narrative of this catastrophe and how BP's winner-take-all business culture made it all but inevitable.

Through never-before-published interviews with BP executives and employees, environmental experts, and oil industry insiders, Steffy takes us behind the scenes of 100 years of BP corporate history. Beginning with the conglomerate's early gambits in the Middle East to its recent ascent among energy titans, Steff unearths the roots of the Gulf oil spill in the unwritten bargain between oil producers and consumers, whose insatiable appetites drive the search for new supplies faster, farther, and deeper.

Beyond this, the Deepwater Horizon disaster took place after a history of cost cutting in pursuit of profits, particularly under the guidance of its two most recent ex-CEOs, John Browne and Anthony Hayward.

Exhaustively researched and documented, Drowning in Oil is the first in-depth examination of how a lack of corporate responsibility and government oversight led to the biggest offshore oil spill in U.S. history. It is an objective, no-punches-pulled account of the energy industry: its environmental impact and the intense competition among stakeholders in today's oil markets.

This book puts all the pieces together, offering a definitive account of BP's pursuit of outsized profits as the industrial world awakens to the grim realities of Peak Oil.

"They fumbled around the darkened room and found an instruction manual. By flashlight, they read the starting procedures. They were doing everything right. After five or six futile tries, they gave up and headed back toward the bridge. Back on the bridge, alarms were shrieking and the captain knew they were running out of time. The subsea engineer had hit the emergency disconnect for the well, and although the control panel showed the rig should be free, it wasn't. The hydraulics were dead. Fire continued to shoot from the top of the derrick. The rig had no power, and without power, it had no pumps for the firefighting equipment, no way to shut off the flow of gas from the well, and no way to disconnect the rig from the flaming umbilical that had it tethered to the wellhead." —from Drowning in Oil

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780071760812
  • Publisher: McGraw-Hill Professional Publishing
  • Publication date: 12/3/2010
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 857,038
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Loren C. Steffy is the business columnist for the Houston Chronicle. He has been recognized by the Society of American Business Editors and Writers, the Associated Press Managing Editors, the Houston Press Club, and other societies and organizations. In addition, his work has been cited in publications, including the New York Times, the Washington Post Online, and Texas Monthly, and he's made numerous appearances on CNBC, FOX News, MSNBC, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, and Court TV. He lives in The Woodlands, Texas.

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Read an Excerpt


BP and the Reckless Pursuit of Profit


The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.

Copyright © 2011Loren Steffy
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-07-176081-2




Night settled across the Gulf of Mexico about 40 miles from the coast of Louisiana. A sliver of a moon rose above the shimmering water, reflecting off the translucent pillows of jellyfish that bobbed just below the surface. The calm water lapped gently against the giant gray steel pylons that kept the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig suspended above an oil well a mile below the surface.

The Horizon was a massive feat of engineering, a portable steel boomtown for 126 people. The rig had meandered from ocean to sea to gulf, from one oil hot spot to the next, chasing some of the largest deposits of crude and drilling some of the deepest wells of all time. Technically, she was a ship, with engines that could propel her at about four knots and eight under-water thrusters that kept her positioned over the wellhead when she was at rest. The platform was bigger than a football field, capped by a drilling derrick that towered 20 stories above the main deck. Her owner, Transocean Ltd., had spent a half-billion dollars building her, and she could float in as much as 10,000 feet of water and still drill some 30,000 feet below the earth's surface—deeper than Mount Everest is tall. She was part city and part drilling machine, and she was about to become a flaming tomb.

Maybe 130 other vessels in the world could do what the Horizon did. She was special. Built in a Korean shipyard in 2001, she was one of the most advanced weapons in man's insatiable quest for oil. In recent years, she had been working mostly in the Gulf for BP, the British oil company that was developing some of the deepest wells in these waters. She'd hit the Tiber field the previous fall, drilling the deepest well in history at more than 35,000 feet. She had also drilled wells in BP's other two Gulf showcase fields, Thunder Horse and Atlantis, and since February, she'd been positioned over the Macondo prospect.

The Macondo was near a geological formation known as the Mississippi Canyon, an underwater crevasse in the central Gulf about 4 miles wide and 75 miles long. Companies had been drilling in the canyon since 1979, but BP was pushing the technological boundaries, moving to ever-greater depths. The government had issued a permit in March 2009, and one of the Horizon's sister rigs had begun drilling in the fall. A late hurricane, though, had damaged the rig, so that it couldn't complete the job. The Horizon had moved in to finish the drilling. At the end of a mile-long pipe that had been fed down from the derrick, a drill bit that looked like three metal softballs made from the soles of cleated baseball shoes, grinding in unison, had punctured the seafloor and churned through the rock beneath. The bit had ground its way through almost two and a half miles of earth until it struck an ancient graveyard of dinosaurs that had long since decomposed into a massive underground pool of petroleum. It had been a rough ride. The Macondo was fussy, like an infant after mealtime, and the pressure and gas rose like burps from deep in the ground, kicking at the drill pipe and causing shudders that could be felt on the rig above. One BP employee, monitoring the drilling process from back on shore, had referred to the well as a "nightmare." Another described it as "crazy." For BP, it was worth it. Macondo had the promise of being a prolific reservoir of oil, the type of huge find that's referred to in the industry as an "elephant." It was exactly the sort of high-risk, high-reward prospect that BP liked, even if the well's crankiness had slowed the drilling process. Macondo and wells like it represent the best hope for finding new oil deposits in America. Unlike the harsh climates of the Arctic, the Gulf of Mexico is warm most of the year, and, aside from hurricanes, it is a relatively easy place to drill. That convenience and the discovery of finds like the Macondo were driving demand for more drilling. For decades, the offshore industry had coexisted with the fragile ecosystem of the Gulf, home to some of the world's most prolific seafood production, without major problems. The last significant spill had been in the late 1970s, when a well in Mexican waters blew out and tainted beaches in south Texas. Tens of thousands of wells had been drilled since then, with ever-improving and safer technology. The need for new oil deposits in friendly waters, combined with the industry's safety record, had eased public concern over offshore drilling. Less than two months after the Horizon arrived at the Macondo, President Barack Obama had opened vast new areas of the Gulf, parts of the eastern seaboard, and segments of offshore Alaska to new drilling. The deep water was about to get busier.

As night settled in on April 20, though, none of the crew was thinking about new neighbors barging in on the Horizon's solitude. A half-dozen BP and Transocean supervisors had arrived by helicopter earlier in the day to celebrate seven years of impeccable safety on the rig. BP was a company that knew the painful cost of ignoring safety. Just a month earlier, the company had marked a bleak anniversary—a refinery explosion five years earlier near Houston that had killed 15 workers and injured hundreds more. After that tragedy, and after the harsh findings of the investigations that followed, BP had enacted sweeping new safety procedures. A rig operating without an accident deserved special praise. By the time the helicopter ferrying the BP managers had landed, things were winding down on the drilling of the Macondo well. The Horizon crew had struck what appeared to be a sizable reservoir of oil, and it was now in the final stages of its task, preparing to cap the well and move the rig to another site. Once the Horizon was gone, BP would tie Macondo into a nearby underwater pipeline and begin pumping its oil toward shore. That, however, wasn't the Horizon crew members' concern. They just drilled the wells; they didn't stick around for "first oil." Both the Horizon crew and BP were ready to move on. The Macondo's crankiness had set them behind schedule by a month and a half, and nowhere was lost time more costly than on an offshore rig. BP was spending about a half-million dollars a day for the Horizon, and the delays had pushed the project more than $20 million over budget in rig costs alone.

* * *

Stephen Stone was no drilling expert, but even he could tell that things weren't going smoothly. Stone had joined the Horizon's crew more than two years earlier, working as a roustabout, which means that he did a variety of jobs and specialized in none. Stone, whose dark beard framed boyish features, mostly assisted crane operators and helped to pump a heavy fluid of clay and chemicals known as "drilling mud" into the well bore. Stone was coming to the end of his two-week stint aboard the Horizon. In another day or so, he'd be back on shore and in the arms of his redheaded bride, Sara, whom he had married just six months earlier.

During most of Stone's hitch, the drilling mud had been disappearing in the hole. That wasn't helping the Macondo's budget problems. Drilling mud may sound mundane, but it's a highly specialized mixture designed to lubricate the well and tamp down the pressure. The recipes for mud are carefully guarded by the service companies that make it. For wells like Macondo, BP would be paying about $10 million just for the mud. When a well loses mud, it can mean only a couple of things, and neither of them is good: either the underground formation is unstable, or the well was drilled too quickly, cracking the formation. At least four times during Stone's hitch, the crew had been forced to stop pumping in mud and shoot heavy drilling sealant into the h

Excerpted from DROWNING IN OIL by LOREN C. STEFFY. Copyright © 2011 by Loren Steffy. Excerpted by permission of The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents




CHAPTER 2 DAWN IN THE DESERT..............          

CHAPTER 3 RISE OF THE SUN KING............          


CHAPTER 5 "THERE'S NOTHING LEFT"..........          

CHAPTER 6 IMMINENT HAZARD.................          

CHAPTER 7 THE PRICE OF FAILURE............          

CHAPTER 8 THE FIXER....................          

CHAPTER 9 THE FALL OF THE SUN KING........          

CHAPTER 10 NOT ENOUGH....................          

CHAPTER 11 "A BURNING PLATFORM"...........          

CHAPTER 12 "WHO CARES, IT'S DONE".........          

CHAPTER 13 PRELUDE TO DISASTER............          

CHAPTER 14 DROPS IN THE BIG OCEAN.........          

CHAPTER 15 A FOX IN THE HENHOUSE..........          

CHAPTER 16 REEFS OF RUIN..................          

CHAPTER 17 APOLOGIES ALL AROUND...........          

CHAPTER 18 MEET THE NEW BOSS .............          

CHAPTER 19 LOST FAITH....................          

CHAPTER 20 ALL FOR OIL....................          





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