D. Dowd Muska


Drilling for Truth, Finding Clichés

April 07, 2011

The webcam showed it to the world, live: a horrific plume of oil, flowing freely from the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.

It’s been nearly a year since the Deepwater Horizon sank and the crude began to spew. Most Americans have moved on. Certainly the media have -- revolution in the Middle East and nuclear catastrophe in Japan offer sexier imagery than a capped well thousands of feet underwater.

Still, 11 men died when the rig exploded. Livelihoods were threatened along the Gulf Coast -- by the resulting environmental damage, as well as the Obama administration’s baseless moratorium on deepwater drilling. BP’s stockholders, many of them retirees, took a beating. The disaster will influence misguided energy-policy decisions for decades to come.

A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea: The Race to Kill the BP Oil Gusher isn’t the first book to document the tragedy, but for those who remain interested, reporter Joel Achenbach provides a thorough account.

A seasoned scribe with The Washington Post, Achenbach’s recitation of times, places, and people is adept. He was embedded in the war to plug the Macondo well, and his conversations and emails with the story’s principals help make some sense of an enormously complicated saga -- the accident, the response, the litigation -- that is not yet settled. Particularly useful are the now-forgotten claims professional alarmists issued at the mishap’s inception. Peak-oil nutcase Matt Simmons, for example, wouldn’t live to see his ludicrous predictions (states along the Gulf would have to be evacuated, the crude would float all the way to Ireland, “BP’s history”) thoroughly refuted.

But beyond the basics, A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea disappoints.

Achenbach doesn’t have the insight or the gumption to diverge from a single Beltway-approved bromide. Barack Obama’s “aloof and professorial” nature isn’t welcome “in the age of right-wing talk radio and the Tea Party movement.” (After all, red-state troglodytes can’t grasp that the president is “a creature of the meritocracy.”) America has “an addiction to oil,” and “suburban sprawl … has consumed once pastoral landscapes.” Even Achenbach’s vocabulary -- “optics,” “granularity,” “narrative” -- is rife with words de rigueur for mainstream mediaites.

Not surprisingly, a reporter imbued with establishment groupthink isn’t a good candidate to explore Big Questions about the nation’s energy consumption, the proper relationship between industry and government regulators, or how technology shapes society.

Achenbach’s schoolboy crush on Steven Chu, the physicist who heads the U.S. Department of Energy, is embarrassing. Indeed, A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea’s infatuation with the scientists Chu enlisted to monitor the well-sealing operation -- happily, the U.S. Coast Guard had the final say over BP’s response -- is inexplicable. Dozens of references are made to the brilliance of Chu’s team, but Achenbach does not supply examples of significant contributions. Engineers who plugged the hole in July, and rig workers who drilled two relief wells, deserve the credit for stopping the calamity. (As the presidential commission tasked with investigating the blowout wrote, federal scientists had “little background in deep-sea petroleum engineering.”)

Bureaucrat puffery is objectionable enough, but the author’s greatest offense is an error of omission. U.S. Rep Ed Markey (D-MA), who an appreciative Achenbach praises as having “a gift for the sound bite,” supported the Obama administration’s decision to end joint federal-BP press conferences. “I think that BP has not demonstrated a level of competence or trustworthiness that merits having the U.S. government standing next to it,” the congressman said.

Markey was talking about a government that has brought the nation to the point of insolvency. A government that’s debased the currency to an appalling degree. A government that fosters slothfulness and illegitimacy through its massive welfare infrastructure. A government that sends the cost of living soaring through high taxes, excessive regulations, corporate welfare, and protectionism. A government that wanders the planet, looking for people to bomb, but can’t grasp why foreigners hate it.

And BP is incompetent and untrustworthy? Achenbach fails to note the irony.

A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea is the predictable product of a mainstream-media type sent to cover a disaster with broad environmental and economic implications: rich in technical detail and personal anecdotes, hopelessly conventional in perspective.

When it focuses on facts, Achenbach’s tale of the men -- and yes, it was almost exclusively men -- who risked their lives to stop the spill is compelling. When it wanders into Baby Boomer navel-gazing about energy and technology, you’ll read nothing you haven’t endured many times before.

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.

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