Washington Post reporter Joel Achenbach explores the blowout of BP's Gulf of Mexico offshore well, focusing on the disaster as an engineering problem. The author, who had impressive access to BP engineers, seems to adopt the company line: "We have to remember," Achenbach writes, "that bad things happen to complex systems, that gremlins roam the earth. Things go wrong: count on it." But if a complex system is ultimately to blame, how do we hold "a system" accountable?
The book is heavy on engineering details, but says almost nothing about the corporate motivations of BP. Achenbach shows how BP's early estimate of the "flow rate" -- the amount of oil gushing into the Gulf every day -- was ridiculously low. BP's initial estimate of 5,000 barrels per day was less than 10 percent of the actual flow rate (53,000). Achenbach cites a BP spokesman explaining that the flow rate "didn't matter," but Achenbach's book shows otherwise.
The "flow rate" would become highly relevant as BP engineers attempted to kill the well by capping it with materials (mud, concrete, etc.) dropped from above. In layman's terms, the plugging power needed to be stronger than the well's gushing power. When BP's various "Top Kill" attempts failed, Achenbach makes an observation that reveals his apologist agenda: "no one had made an obvious mistake. The engineers hadn't overlooked anything." What about getting the flow rate right?
Achenbach never delves deeper into why BP woefully underestimated the flow rate. This is a murky, leaky book that misses the environmental disaster's larger implications