It came out of nowhere, a feel-bad story for the ages, a kind of environmental 9/11. The BP Macondo well blowout killed eleven people, sank the massive drilling rig Deepwater Horizon, polluted hundreds of miles of beaches along the Gulf Coast, closed fishing in tens of thousands of square miles of federal water, roiled the region’s economy, and so rattled the nation’s political leadership that even the famously measured Barack Obama lost his cool, snapping at aides, “Plug the damn hole!” For months on end, the disaster seemed to have no quit in it. Admiral Thad Allen, the no-nonsense US Coast Guard commandant who did as much as anyone to keep the American people from losing their minds, said early in the crisis that the oil spill was “indeterminate” and “asymmetrical” and “anomalous.” No one knew what that meant, exactly, but we got the gist of it, which was that this was a very scary situation that required very scary adjectives.
We were haunted by Macondo’s black plume, gushing with lunatic fury on Internet news sites and camping out in the corner of the screen on every cable TV network. You could not escape the plume. It penetrated our psyche like a guilty feeling that won’t go away.
When I told people that I was writing about the oil spill, they reflexively offered condolences, as though covering something so gross and repulsive and tragic must be an unending torment. But it was every bit as fascinating as it was horrible. Journalists are rarely given a chance to cover an event that is unlike anything they’ve covered before. Mostly we write the same thing again and again, with different proper nouns. There are formulas. There are templates. But this one had no predicate, and it caught everyone off guard. It burst from the murky water of the Gulf of Mexico late one night in the spring of 2010, too late to make the print run for the morning newspapers, and too unfamiliar in its details to trigger the immediate recognition that this would be the dominant event of the summer.
The disaster involved deepwater petroleum engineering, something most of us knew little or nothing about. We knew that oil companies drilled wells in deep water—somehow—but few of us had ever heard of a blowout preventer, or centralizers, or nitrogen-foamed cement, or bottoms-up circulation, or a cement bond log, or the danger of hydrocarbons in the annulus.
This story had its own interesting lexicon, a language crafted by men who use tools. Offshore oil drilling is rough stuff, hard-edged, coarse, and although there are women in the mix, they’re few and far between. There is a heavy maleness even in the office jobs, in the cubicles of the company headquarters. A lot of the people in the industry are guys who got their education on the job, in the oil patch. What they do is complex, difficult, and dangerous. They drill holes in the pressurized Earth. They extract crude. They pump mud and cement, and handle gear weighing tens of thousands of pounds on a rig that weighs millions. Theirs is an environment dedicated to function, not form. And so even the language is masculine, the words often short, blunt, monosyllabic. Spud. Hot stab. Top kill. Junk shot. Dump box. Choke line. Kill line. Ram. Ram block. Ram packer. Side packer. Stack. Valve. Tick. Pod. Borehole. Bottom hole. Dry hole. Drill pipe. Coning. Cylinder gauge. Cavity. Rat hole. Reamer shoe. Wiper trip. Squeeze job. Squib shot. Stabber. Static head. Stopcocking. Torque tube . . .
A challenge in reporting the story was finding a way to translate Engineer into English. Those of us who covered the Marine Board of Investigation hearings—the joint inquiry into the Deepwater Horizon disaster by the Coast Guard and the federal Minerals Management Service (MMS), which regulates the offshore industry—heard witnesses say things like this:
“At that time, we replaced all the rubber goods, the upper annular element, lower annular element, the ram packers, top seal, bonnet seals, then the riser connector ring gasket, 3/16th miniconnector ring gaskets, and the wellhead ring gasket.” (Mark Hay, August 25, 2010)
“You’ve got some gas sensors on the mud pits. You also have a gas detector in the top of the shake where the mud goes into the shaker at the possum belly.” (Jimmy Harrell, May 27, 2010)
In the following pages, I hope to turn the disaster and the struggle to plug the well into a tale that everyone can comprehend. The tragedy of the Deepwater Horizon offers lessons that can be applied to any complex enterprise: Take care of the little things. Pay attention to the stuff that doesn’t quite make sense. Don’t ignore those anomalies and hope they’ll go away of their own volition. Respect the rules. Follow proper procedures. Don’t ignore low-probability, high-consequence scenarios. Hope for the best, but plan for the worst.
The Macondo well blowout was a classic industrial accident, a sequence of tightly coupled events in which no single action could have caused the disaster. Some of the mistakes are screamingly obvious in retrospect, but at the critical moments, decisions were fogged by uncertainties. In this case, the critical hardware was a mile below the surface of the sea, where only remotely controlled vehicles could venture. People couldn’t quite see what was going on. They literally groped in the dark. They guessed, wrongly—and people died, and the rig sank, and the oil gushed forth.
There was abundant human error in the mix here. Under oath, witnesses admitted that they skimmed key documents. They did not recognize that engineering anomalies were shouts of warning. They behaved as if past results were an accurate predictor of future events. They didn’t take care of the little things, and then the big thing—the Macondo well, drilled by the Deepwater Horizon—didn’t take care of itself.
The subsequent effort to kill the well was a white-knuckle enterprise. This was a technological problem unlike anything seen before. There was a hole at the bottom of the sea. And no one knew how to fix it.
The oil industry had been so successful in its expansion into the deep water that it had become complacent; it hadn’t fully thought through how it would handle a deepwater blowout. The industry had failed to grasp that the migration to deep water would be a journey into a different world. In its initial, fumbling response to the disaster, BP tried to use the same hardware in the deep water that it had used on oil leaks in the shallows. The engineers didn’t have the right tools, didn’t have the right protocols; they were making it up on the fly.
The catastrophe echoed the Apollo 13 crisis of 1970. In both events, Houston-based engineers tried to improvise solutions to a novel problem in an extreme, inaccessible, hostile environment. But there was a key difference: The Apollo 13 crisis, in which a spacecraft explosion imperiled three astronauts on their way to the moon, lasted four days, while on Day 4 of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the calamity was just getting rolling. Macondo was Apollo 13 on steroids, except when it was Apollo 13 on tranquilizers. Even as thousands of people scrambled around the clock in a frenzy of accelerated innovation, many of the deep-sea maneuvers had a glacial pace. The contradiction was unavoidable, because the well was full of unknowns, and the wrong move could backfire. Engineers feared that in trying to seal the well, they would incite an underground blowout that could let the entire oil reservoir bleed into the gulf. Decisions had to be vetted and fretted over by multiple teams of engineers and scientists. They were all sprinting in goo, running full tilt but hardly going anywhere, as if it were a bad dream.
The engineers found themselves trying to cram many years of technological innovation into a single summer. How do you contain or kill the oil gusher when the mere contact of methane and cold water at that pressure creates those damn methane hydrates that clog your pipes? And do it with the whole world watching, live, with Internet feeds of every mishap and blunder? While your company is suddenly a global pariah and your stock is cratering and every plugged-in investor is certain you’re roadkill? With the media getting hysterical, and the president talking about kicking someone’s ass? And scientists from reputable academic institutions warning that the oil spill will not only pollute the Gulf of Mexico but also ride something called the Loop Current all the way around Florida, up to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and then onward to who knows where?
Apollo 13’s rescue was a government operation; the oil spill response was an unusual and inherently awkward public-private partnership. The private sector had the tools and the legal responsibility for plugging the well, but the government had the ultimate authority for the response. That was confusing on its face. The public never understood the arrangement. Government scientists found themselves embedded in BP’s headquarters, working cheek by jowl with BP engineers, and then the smartest man in the federal government parachuted into Houston along with a kitchen cabinet of freelance geniuses. Terawatts of brainpower were applied to the problem of the hole at the bottom of the sea.
What follows is a cautionary tale of a major engineering project gone hideously wrong, and the desperate effort to solve a problem that human civilization had never before faced. One recurring theme is that in an extreme crisis we should be thankful for the professionals, the cool heads, the grown-ups who do their jobs and ignore the howling political winds.
Another lesson to emerge is that in a complex technological disaster, hardware by itself won’t solve the problem. You need to think things through, to diagnose and analyze and interpret. That can be a high art. A crucial breakthrough in this case happened far from the gulf, in an obscure government lab where an even more obscure scientist tried to understand enigmatic data points. In crunch time, call in the nerds as well as the cowboys.
You never know when someone’s fantastically esoteric expertise may be called upon to help save the country.