The BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was an environmental, political and financial catastrophe that killed 11 men. It was also completely avoidable.
The top brass at Transocean, the world’s largest offshore drilling contractor, had noticed. Anderson, a bearish former star of his school football team, was already, at 35, a tool pusher on the Deepwater Horizon — the most senior man on the drilling floor and one promotion away from becoming the firm’s highest representative on the whole rig. You don’t become a tool pusher by fooling around. So, when Jason told Billy, before he died on the Deepwater Horizon, that there were “issues” on board, his father listened.
If Jason’s superiors had also listened, he might not have been “basically cremated”, as his father puts it, on April 20. But this kind of conjecture tortures Billy, who is 66 and has worked in the oil industry for 30 years. The living room of his riverside house, near the backwoods town of Blessing, Texas, is decorated with hunting gear and a John Wayne memorial plaque bearing the motto “A Man’s Gotta Do What A Man’s Gotta Do”. In pride of place are photographs of his son: Jason in his football gear; Jason with his children, Lacy and Ryver; Jason with his wife, Shelley, and their wedding cake in the shape of an oil rig.
Jason had been a model employee. He started his career at Transocean, two years after graduating from high school, as a chipper and painter on the rigs — the lowliest, hottest job imaginable — and had been promoted several times. By the time of his death he was earning a six-figure salary.
His ambition came partly from a terrible episode in his childhood. When he was 10 years old, his only sibling, Stephanie, 14, was killed in a car crash. In the same year, two of his uncles and his grandmother died. And then his parents filed for divorce. From then on, Billy raised Jason alone. It’s little wonder that they were, in Billy’s words, “real close”. Indeed, as soon as Jason came back from his two-or three-week “hitch” on the rig, the family would meet for a slap-up dinner at the American Legion restaurant in Blessing and put the world to rights.
It was during one of these family gatherings that Jason first spilt his concerns about the Deepwater Horizon.
“I don’t think he’d ever had any problems before, always got on real well with the bosses,” says Billy.
“But just lately, last three months, he’d said there were problems. He didn’t get real specific, but he did tell me, ‘Dad, they are doing things that I really don’t like. They are pushing us to do things that are not safe.’ I told him, ‘Jason, look, if you think it’s unsafe, you go to your supervisor and you tell him this is not right.’ I’m sure he did that.”
But Jason’s anxiety mounted. On his final stretch of leave, before he left for his last hitch on the Deepwater Horizon, he and Shelley decided to rewrite their wills.
They also discussed, should anything happen to Jason, what kind of future they wanted for their children. They spoke about what schools they might attend and what sports they should play. And, before he left home, he spoke again to his father.
“He told me, ‘Dad, I know what they are doing is not safe,’” remembers Billy, with a rare catch in his throat. “He told me, ‘If they keep this up, they will kill every one of us.’”
It would be easy to forget about the Deepwater Horizon disaster. The gushing well has been capped. The spill, says the US government, is three-quarters gone. Tony Hayward, BP’s maladroit chief executive, has been sent to Siberia, and the firm’s share price has rallied. But the nightmare has not ended for everyone.
Indeed, the Andersons are a reminder that before this event became everything it has since become — the world’s largest ever accidental oil spill, a multi-billion-dollar black hole for BP, lingering poison to coastal communities in Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida, a labyrinth of litigation, and a transatlantic political football — it was a profound and avoidable human tragedy. In the accounts of those who died and those who survived the blowout of the Macondo well is the seed of the saga that has since bloomed. The theme of that saga is greed: how, between the companies who owned and drilled the oil, the public who thirsted for the oil, and the governments who suckled on the oil, the acquisition of profit became more important than the protection of human life.
Which company, and which employees, are ultimately liable for this disaster is for American courts and juries to decide. But, in two months of examining the causes and human costs of the events of April 20, some facts became self-evident. As the operator of the doomed well, BP’s employees were the senior decision-makers. It was BP’s “company men” on the Deepwater Horizon who called the shots, and its managers in Houston, Texas, who steered strategy. Time and again, those managers made decisions that compromised safety.
Why? In this story, there are only ever two reasons why BP does anything: to save money or to make more money. Indeed, if you only needed to know one fact about this accident it would be this — the Deepwater Horizon cost BP between $800,000 and $1m dollars a day to run, and this project was 43 days behind schedule. That kind of financial leakage can put pressure on a man.
But BP did not act alone. The owners of the rig, Transocean, whom BP had contracted to carry out the majority of the drilling work, bear a heavy burden. The attitude towards safety displayed on the Deepwater Horizon was, to put it kindly, hubristic. For example, in evidence offered to the Deepwater investigation in Kenner, Louisiana, by Transocean’s chief electronics engineer, it seems that not only were several of the rig’s computers continually on the blink, but the vessel’s alarm system — which might have allowed the 11 men who died time to escape — was permanently set to bypass.
A more troubling revelation, confirmed by The Sunday Times, is that Transocean managers in Houston repeatedly failed to back the expertise of their senior offshore representatives: men like Jason Anderson and his immediate superior, the offshore installation manager (OIM), Jimmy Harrell. The most explosive evidence of the tension emerged in the hours just after the explosion, when most of the Deepwater Horizon’s survivors had been fished out the water and were sitting on board a rescue vessel watching their rig burn. At this point, two witnesses saw Harrell screaming into a satellite phone. “Are you f***ing happy? The rig’s on fire! I told you this was gonna happen.”
Harrell was not speaking to BP when he made that furious phone call. He was speaking to a superior at Transocean in Houston, who had failed to register or act on his safety concerns. Instead, that manager chose to endorse the judgment of the operator on this job, BP. Why? Because Transocean is the biggest offshore drilling firm in the world, and BP was its most important customer. In short, Transocean made bad decisions for the same two reasons BP did: to save money, or to make more money.
Both companies understand that their work is inherently hazardous. Crude oil is precious, and becoming harder to find. BP — for political and business reasons — has pioneered the search for oil in difficult and dangerous environments. The Macondo well that the Deepwater Horizon drilled in block 252 of the Mississippi Canyon, 41 miles from the coast of Louisiana, was one such project. Exploratory wells are always economically risky. About two-thirds are dug, plugged, abandoned and forgotten, on account of holding “uneconomic” volumes of oil. But, having studied seismic data, BP thought it had a good chance at this site.
BP hired Transocean to dig the hole. Unlike some oil majors, BP owns very little drilling equipment itself. Instead, it finances and manages contractors, who work its patch. Transocean was a natural choice for this job. Deep-water drilling is, one engineer explained to me, as technically difficult as exploring the moon. Hyperbole notwithstanding, it’s an impressive feat. One has to hit a tiny spot, miles under the sea bed, while handling extreme pressure, extreme heat, and total darkness. And this is what Transocean does for a living.
BP was not aiming to extract or “produce” any oil on the Macondo project. They hoped to allow the multi-million-dollar sensors in the drill bit to create a log of the potential oil in this reservoir, and then cement the well shut, ready for a time when they could connect these reserves to a nearby pipeline and move the oil onshore. And, in potential terms, the Macondo was a success. According to a log seen by The Sunday Times, BP knew late in March 2010 that it had found a significant amount of oil on this site — much more, say several industry experts, than the 50-100m barrels they later claimed to have discovered. One engineer who showed me the log, but who wished to remain anonymous, asked a question: “If BP knew it had this great find down there, why did it rush the job? It just makes no sense, economically.”
In the most straightforward terms, this accident happened because those responsible for this well failed to control pressure. At three miles beneath the seabed, where the Deepwater Horizon was drilling, the pressure from the surrounding rocks is so great you could crush a double-decker bus to the size of a shoebox. This pressure is useful. Unlike in the cartoons, oil does not sit in a pool, waiting to be extracted. It exists in the pores of rocks. To extract or “produce” the oil, you need high pressure outside the well, and lower pressures within, which draws the oil into the well. But it can also be destructive. If you fail to control these extreme forces, you can start producing oil and gas in unsafe conditions. And, if you start producing oil and gas, and all the safety barriers between the reservoir and the rig fail, you have a blowout.
The trouble is, that term — blowout — sounds trifling. It sounds like a car puncture. The word does no justice to the chaotic, bloody nightmare that took hold of the Deepwater Horizon at 9.53pm on April 20, when gas from the blowout was sucked into the rig’s vast diesel engines, causing at least two explosions, and a monstrous fire. Indeed, when two coastguard helicopter pilots, Lieutenant Commander Tom Hickey and Lieutenant Craig Murray, were scrambled from their base in Belle Chasse, Louisiana, they immediately caught a sense of the inferno’s scale. After setting off in their HH-65 Dolphin to fly to the scene, less than an hour after the explosion, they lowered their night-vision goggles and saw a bright orange blur on the horizon. It was the Deepwater Horizon. They were 145 miles away.
Why were Williams and his colleagues forced to jump into the water in the first place? Whose fault was it that his rig blew up? Can you imagine being one of the 115 survivors on that rig? What it was like to be Mike Williams, the Horizon’s affable, goateed chief electronics technician, who was working in his office when he heard a hiss, and the high whir of speeding engines as they filled with gas? Or what he was thinking when his computer monitor blew up, shortly before the first of two massive blasts threw him across the room?
How frightened he must have been, as he and other survivors crawled and staggered towards lifeboats, with an acre of rig burning behind them, only to see that some boats were out of reach, one was already in the water, and one was being lowered, half-full?
And can you imagine what you would have done, had you been, like Williams, one of a few survivors stranded on deck, and your only choice was to say a prayer and jump into the oily water?
The survivors sat in shock for hours on the Damon B Bankston — a 260ft service boat that was assisting the Deepwater Horizon and was suddenly called into action as a rescue vessel. Those men and women watched the rig burn, with no reason given for the delay in taking them onshore, and were forbidden access to the satellite phones or radios on board. They finally arrived in Port Fourchon, Louisiana, around 28 hours after they were first picked out of the water, where they were forced to undergo a urine test to check for illegal drug use before being “strongly encouraged” to sign a document drafted by Transocean’s lawyers and leaked to The Sunday Times. It reads: “I was not a witness to the incident requiring the evacuation [of the Deepwater Horizon] and have no first-hand or personal knowledge regarding the incident... I was not injured as a result of the incident or evacuation.”
They gave this document to everyone, even workers who were so badly hurt that they had been airlifted to hospital. Imagine having to endure all of this before you were allowed to see or speak to your family.
Hold on. Why were Williams and his colleagues forced to jump into the water in the first place? Whose fault was it that his rig blew up and sank two days later? It’s a question I asked BP directly.
On a hot June night in New Iberia, Louisiana, BP organised a town-hall meeting at an elementary school where around 200 local residents were invited to ask questions of representatives from the oil company, the US Coast Guard and a dozen other organisations involved in the clean-up. First, the overworked and emotional leader of the area coastguard, Captain Laferriere, gave an impassioned speech. He said he would fight the oil as if it were an invading army. “I got kids,” he said, with his arms spread wide. “I know how much this matters. I know what a way of life means. I know what a community means.” There was muted appreciation in the room.
Then the man from BP, Hugh Depland — a charming retired executive who was parachuted back into the company after its initial PR bungling — walked to the lectern. He said, “I have to apologise,” before listing BP’s financial responsibilities to the people of New Iberia. Afterwards, I asked him: what is BP apologising for? “We recognise that the oil out there belongs to us,” he said. So, BP claims responsibility for the accident? “There will be things that are said and done in Washington that we’re not going to focus on,” he continued, referring to the congressional investigation. “Our role is: that oil is in the water. Let’s get that oil.”
Of course, nobody from BP will admit total liability. In fact, the company believes from its internal investigation that it made some errors on Deepwater Horizon. In particular, they point to their engineers’ inability to read a pressure test correctly. But the firm also believes that it will not, in due course, be found guilty of “gross negligence” in the events that led to the blowout — a nuance that would mean a federal fine of only $4.5 billion, rather than $17.6 billion if they were found guilty. But would you expect BP to say anything else?
To analyse this disaster one needs independent voices. In Dr Robert Bea, one has the perfect man for the job. Bea is a bald, wry, hoarse veteran with 50 years’ experience in the oil industry, who is now a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, leading their Center for Catastrophic Risk Management. In this capacity, he is now chairing an independent investigation into the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Bea has reviewed testimony from rig workers and interviewed around 60 other informants on the condition that he does not disclose names.
Ask him what went wrong and he’ll tell you: pretty much everything. He argues that the Deepwater Horizon disaster is a direct analogue of the Piper Alpha disaster in 1988, in which 167 people died when a gas platform in the North Sea exploded. “The 100-plus things that went wrong at Piper Alpha are damn near duplicated in this case,” he says. “It wasn’t one thing that went wrong. There’s a whole series of them.”
Bea says that most disasters on this scale boil down to a simple equation: A + B = C. “A” represents “natural hazards”. “B” represents “human fallibilities, such as acquiescence, indifference, ignorance, hubris or sloth”. And “C” is a “catastrophe”. First, we need to explain the “natural hazards”. Macondo was, in the words of Mark Hafle, a BP engineer, “a crazy well for sure”. Others on the project called it the “well from hell”. Indeed, Macondo had been taking frequent “gas kicks” — or incursions of gas into the well.
Not only was the natural environment uncooperative, but human fallibility proved in plentiful supply. In two confidential reports, conducted in the weeks before the accident by Lloyd’s Register Group on behalf of Transocean, workers complained that much of the equipment on board Deepwater Horizon was faulty, and that “unsafe behaviours” were being overlooked.
Of particular concern to Lloyd’s Register was the rig’s last line of defence against a blowout — its blowout preventer (BOP). The unit sits on the seabed, and consists of a series of rams that are designed to shear the drilling pipe in half in the event of an emergency. This BOP was made by Cameron — a Houston firm — and had been modified in China in 2005. The inspectors found that the unit used by the Deepwater Horizon had not been fully inspected since building was completed on the rig in 2000, and there were a total of 26 components that were in “bad” or “poor” condition. Indeed, in separate evidence given to the congressional investigation into the disaster, it is clear that the BOP was leaking hydraulic fluid and had a dead battery. One of its control pods was not functioning. The US government official whose job it was to check the BOP admits he never did so.
When the US Coast Guard took me on a low flight over the gulf, it was hard to embrace the scale of the spill So, the environment was tricky, the equipment was shabby and the workforce was feeling harried. Then management made a number of decisions that steered this rig towards destruction. BP, for instance, opted for a cheaper well design, with fewer barriers between the reservoir and the rig.
It also disregarded the advice of its subcontractor, Halliburton, who advised that the well needed 21 “centralisers” to keep the central pipe steady and ensure a good cement job (meaning no cracks through which gas might escape).
BP opted for six centralisers instead, because it cost less time to get the parts, and was therefore less expensive. An argument between BP and Halliburton ensued, which BP won. And any time Dick Cheney’s Halliburton is the good guy in a story, you know you’re in trouble.
Indeed, on April 16, as the dust settled over the centraliser dispute, a BP engineer named Brett Cocales sent an email to a colleague that has become a totem of BP’s hubris. “Who cares,” he wrote. “It’s done, end of story, will probably be fine and we’ll get a good cement job.”
It was not fine. In fact, according to Lance John, an engineer from another subcontractor called Weatherford, the well only ever ran with “four or five” centralisers — less than a quarter of the number suggested by Halliburton. This decision may have led directly to the poor cement job that caused the blowout.
All these questionable decisions were followed by the coup de grâce. Having endured repeated “gas kicks”, and only partially convinced that their cement was fixed, BP decided to run a pressure test on the rig’s cement at the same time that they displaced the well’s drilling mud with seawater. Drilling mud — it should be explained — is not mud at all, but a complex and viscous substance that helps to equalise pressure in the well and keep the hydrocarbons in their place. Seawater, on the other hand, is too light to stop oil or gas from reaching the rig.
Why the rush? BP’s haste was certainly exacerbated by the massive overrun of the project, but they had another reason to hurry. With painful timing, a number of executives from BP and Transocean had arrived by helicopter on April 20 in order to celebrate the rig’s seven-year run without any “lost-time safety incidents”.
In the event, not everyone felt like partying. On the morning of April 20, an argument sparked between Harrell from Transocean and one of the two BP company men. The full conversation has not yet been made public, but it seems clear from those who have reported the discussion to federal investigators that the disagreement concerned the rushed completion of the well. It also seems clear that the BP men won, and that Harrell was unhappy but acquiescent. After the conversation, he was heard to grouch: “Well, I guess that’s what we have them pinchers for.” The “pinchers”, in case you hadn’t guessed, refer to the blowout preventer.
“I look at this guy — Jimmy Harrell — and I see a responsible, experienced man, but there is this tension in him,” says Bea. “He has a responsibility to BP, who are spending nearly a million dollars a day, and a responsibility to the safety of his rig and his crew. And they’d built up this horrible economic pressure, because they were over-budget. And the offshore installation manager understands this, he’s not a stupid man.”
So, when Harrell and BP’s company man argued over safety, what happened? “BP calls [onshore] and Transocean calls [onshore], and the same answer comes back: wrap the damn thing up.” Why didn’t Transocean in Houston back Harrell’s judgment and challenge BP? “An excellent question, and one that continues to bedevil my brain,” says Bea. “The best I can say is that they were really anxious to move this unit. Transocean knows that in order to keep this very good client called BP, they are going to have to do everything they can to accelerate completion of the well. And then, what happened... is what you and I can both see.”
Actually, it’s not easy to see. When I toured the coastal states of the Gulf of Mexico in the second and third months of this disaster, the oil itself proved elusive. It was, however, easy enough to see the anger and economic strife the spill had wrought. The anger towards BP was widespread, if diffuse. One shop owner in Houma, Louisiana, vented his spleen on a sandwich board that read: “BP OIL IS KILLING OUR BUSINESS TOO. WHAT ABOUT US?” It captured the prevailing mood.
Even when the US Coast Guard took me on a low flight over the gulf, it was hard to embrace the physical scale of the spill. At the site of the gusher, there were a dozen huge vessels collecting, skimming and burning the oil. Two ships belched fire like mythical beasts. Around that busy square mile, the ocean turned an angry reddish-brown for a few miles, and then, for a few dozen more, emitted a sheen like a fresh coat of paint. But the ocean was not the black mess I had expected. Given how much oil was actually being pumped into the gulf — around 50,000 barrels a day; an Exxon Valdez every five days — the oil itself proved decidedly coy.
It was not until I took a boat into Louisana’s delicate bayous — which are, because of erosion, disappearing at an alarming rate already — that the environmental aspect of this disaster registered.
Under the guidance of a silver-bearded fisherman named Zach Mouton, I sped through the shallow waters to Bay Jimmy on a hot July morning, surrounded on all sides by lush grass. Close up, the marshlands remind you of an archaic disease called calenture — a tropical fever induced by heat, under which, in a delirious state, sailors believed the water around them to be green fields, and walked into the ocean. That is what the bayous feel like: a sweltering, dreamy field. In the fringes of much of the thin grass was the Macondo’s black, sludgy paint. In among the oil was the boom that had been laid by the thousands of workers hired by BP in the aftermath of the blowout. These barriers had simply been washed ashore by the winds and tides. And, on island colonies, alongside the fouled boom, were dozens of pelicans with their bellies stained black.
President Obama called the spill “America’s worst environmental disaster”, but not everyone is now so sure. Since BP finally capped the well in July and August with its “static kill”, the oil slick — the surface oil — has dissipated much more rapidly than anticipated. The US government confirmed in July that three-quarters of the oil had evaporated, been dispersed or captured. The other quarter, the government said, was breaking down rapidly.
Thad Allen, who is co-ordinating the federal response to the spill, sounded a note of caution when these statistics were published. “In the history of this country, we’ve never put this much oil in the water,” he said. “Anybody that classifies this as anything less than catastrophic is not being realistic.” Indeed, the slick may be disappearing fast, but who knows what is happening to oxygen levels, and to the ocean’s delicate ecosystem beneath the surface? Three weeks ago, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute confirmed that there was a huge, 22-mile-long plume of oil beneath the surface of the gulf.
BP is 'incapable of human emotion', and taking them to the cleaners is the possible only way to make them see sense Along the coast this summer, business has suffered, but not terminally. Under pressure from the US government, BP has doled out dollar bills to claimants like sweeties: more than 400m of them. Meanwhile, not only does it seem that every fisherman or shrimper or hotel has a case against BP, but many are being employed by the company at top rates.
A fisherman who lends his boat to the clean-up operation can charge $1,500 a day, on top of fuel and upkeep costs. Some have worked every day for two months. It’s next year, and the year after, that everyone worries about.
Webb Cheramie has been a shrimper all his adult life. He is 66 years old, with bright blue eyes and skin like an elephant’s hide.
His brother, children, son-in-law and grandson are also shrimpers. When we spoke in mid-July, they were all employed by BP in the clean-up.
I find Cheramie repairing fishing gear, in blue jeans and a white T-shirt, outside his house on the outskirts of Grand Isle. A sign on his garage window reads: “NO TRESPASSING. Violators will be shot. Survivors will be shot again.”
“We’ve lived here 50 years,” he says. “And I know we ain’t going to be shrimping for a long time yet. When hurricanes come, we repair and repair. But this? Right now, BP’s being helpful. Nice. But we don’t know what’s going to happen in the long run. Are they going to leave us hanging here?”
Keith Jones, a 55-year-old lawyer who lives in Baton Rouge — in the same state but a world away from Cheramie — has much more right to be angry: his son, Gordon, who worked as a mud engineer on the Deepwater Horizon, was killed in the explosion. But somehow he can’t summon the bile.
“I just can’t think why I don’t feel it,” Keith says, in his educated Southern drawl. “If someone had said that I would have been in this situation now, and that I could read the emails [about the decisions that led to Gordon’s death], I would have thought that I would want to find those individuals from BP and kill them one by one. But I don’t. I find that lack of rage curious.” In fact, when we talk about those emails, Keith simply holds a pinched hand to his head and cries, as privately as one can during an interview.
We meet on Sunday July 4, Independence Day, in his law office. He is dressed, after church, in chino shorts and a polo shirt, and has a mountain of papers on his desk to read. In addition to his normal caseload, Keith is also lobbying officials in Washington to make a change to the Death On the High Seas Act. At present, the law limits payouts to relatives of those killed due to negligence at sea to “pecuniary damages” — in other words, the sum total of their potential life earnings, less interest, potential expenditure, and taxes. Keith wants to increase the wrongdoer’s liability to include “non-pecuniary damages” such as care and companionship.
The reason why Keith is determined to change the law is simple. When Gordon died, aged 28 — a big man, with a talent for golf and making people laugh — his wife, Michelle, was eight months pregnant with their second child. When Maxwell Gordon Jones was born, three weeks after Gordon died, it was, says Keith, “the ultimate bittersweet experience. It was wonderful having a new grandson, healthy as he could be, and Michelle did great. Everything was perfect, except Gordon wasn’t there. I really don’t have the words to describe it beyond that”.
So, when Keith says he wants his son to be worth more than his paycheck, you can see why. He says that BP is “incapable of human emotion”, and that taking them to the cleaners is the only way to make them see sense. When you hear the stories Keith tells, you can see his viewpoint. Gordon may have been employed by the mud company MI Swaco, but nobody from BP has ever contacted Keith’s family to say sorry, or to say anything. This experience is shared by other relatives of the bereaved. Worse still, says Keith, BP has made hay by pointing to their touchy-feely credentials.
In May, for instance, Gordon’s older brother, Chris, travelled to Jackson, Mississippi, to attend a memorial service for those who died on the Deepwater Horizon. The event was arranged by Transocean, and, according to both Chris and Billy Anderson — who was also there — Transocean did everything possible to ensure that the families of the deceased were treated kindly. However, unbeknown to any of the mourners, some of BP’s senior executives — including Tony Hayward and Lamar McKay — also attended. Their presence was only noted when they slipped out the rear entrance of the building after the service, were escorted to their SUVs, and were driven away, without once speaking to the victims’ bereaved families.
“I have racked my brain to think why they would show up and not say a word,” says Keith. “The only reason I could think that they attended was so that sometime they could say they did. Sure enough, almost the first thing Tony Hayward said when he went before Congress, was about the memorial service.” Hayward called it a “shattering moment” for him, and said of the families: “I can only imagine their sorrow.” “In my opinion,” says Keith, “to do that and say that is beneath contempt.”
Again, one might think this story is incidental, but it cuts to the core of why BP is in this fix. Many, if not all of the families, have cases against BP, and there will be finicky legal reasons why those executives did not speak to the families. But there are human reasons for doing quite the opposite. Indeed, the same families also have cases against Transocean, and their representatives have regularly called the grieving families.
“BP speaks one language,” concludes Keith. “And they can hear only messages spoken in that language. That language is not a human language, it is a financial language. What I’m trying to do, what I’m asking Congress to help me do, is to speak to BP in their language, in as loud a voice as possible.”
One man who has been speaking to BP in a language they understand, for years — and who has a glass-fronted 73rd-floor office in a Houston skyscraper to show for it — is the lawyer Tony Buzbee. After BP blew up the Texas City Refinery in 2005, killing 15 workers and injuring scores more, Buzbee represented 180 claimants against BP. Generally, he takes 40% of personal-injury cases that he wins. And, generally, he wins.
“BP is a horrible company,” says Buzbee, fingering the silk handkerchief in the breast pocket of his pinstripe suit. “I’ve been suing BP for years. I know a lot about them. Let me tell you, any big case that can be boiled down to one phrase is always a winner. This one is ‘Profits Over Safety’. That’s it. BP put profits over safety.”
The Deepwater Horizon disaster has hurt BP in passing. Tony Hayward has been axed, dividends have been withheld, and the company may be banned from drilling in the Gulf of Mexico for the foreseeable future. They have spent billions, but then, they have billions to spend. Bob Dudley, who is taking over from Tony Hayward as chief executive of BP next month, says the firm will emerge “smaller and wiser” from this crisis. Is this unreasonable punishment? In Britain, where many depend on BP for their pension funds, there are some who complain that the company has been unfairly victimised. But consider its record in North America. As Buzbee’s pinstripes can attest, BP had already engineered one massive disaster recently, when their onshore Texas City Refinery blew up in 2005. And the Deepwater Horizon disaster, far from being an aberration, forms part of a grim pattern.
Indeed, when Tony Hayward took over as chief executive of BP in 2007, he put a stop to the vast corporate expansion that had been the hallmark of his predecessor, Lord Browne — who had acquired other oil companies like Amoco — because that empire building had come at some cost.
During Hurricane Dennis in 2005, for instance, BP almost sent Thunder Horse, its one-billion-dollar flagship oil platform, to the bottom of the ocean. The problem? A valve in the sub-sea manifest had been installed backwards, causing the rig to flood during the hurricane. The rig began listing badly and almost sank. And the reason why an elementary error went unnoticed? Browne had announced to shareholders that Thunder Horse was going to sail on June 1, and, engineers rushed to make his will a reality. Bea, who reported on these events, says that “everyone on the project had to operate with a ‘blowtorch on the bum’ incentive to sail that thing on June 1”. They hurried, and botched the job. Then Hurricane Dennis came along. A + B = C.
Thunder Horse was a near miss, but Texas City was the real deal. Fifteen people died and over 170 people were injured when a fountain of chemically unstable liquids caught fire at the BP plant, causing America’s worst-ever industrial accident. The company was found guilty of 300 safety violations, and agreed to pay $21m in fines. It would not be the last time. In 2006, BP’s pipelines in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, leaked 267,000 gallons of oil as a result of being poorly maintained. On this occasion, BP paid over $20m in fines.
These blunders — coupled with some personal problems — eventually cost Browne his job. And, when Hayward, a down-to-earth geologist, was appointed chief executive in 2007, he promised to focus “like a laser” on safety, but in reality, little seems to have changed. Only one month before the Macondo blowout, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration found 62 safety violations at BP’s Ohio refinery.
BP was allowed to run amok because, as a former employee told me, “it’s a wild, wild west out there and there’s no sheriff in town”. That wayward sheriff was, until the Deepwater Horizon disaster, a US government body called the Minerals Management Service (MMS). But, before its disbandment in May, it had proved itself a venal, ineffective regulator that utterly failed to keep the oil companies in check.
According to a damning report filed by the government’s inspector-general after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, it emerged that some MMS officials even allowed oil company officials to fill in their own forms in pencil, and that the regulator then traced their outline in pen.
The regulator’s central problem was its conflict of interest. Not only was the MMS charged with policing the oil companies, it was also employed to sell them leases to drill on American territory. These royalties earned the US government more than $10 billion in 2009, its biggest contribution outside taxes. Is it any wonder that big oil and the MMS were cosy? In fact, the habitual accusation that the Bush administration had been “in bed with the oil companies” turned out to be true. In 2008, a government internal investigation found that several MMS employees were having sex with, receiving gifts from, falsifying contracts for, and taking drugs with oil executives. And, despite President Obama’s promise to clean up the organisation, the MMS has been no less flakey under his stewardship. This, after all, was the organisation that exempted BP from a detailed spill-response analysis at the Macondo site, because drilling there posed a “low risk”.
Deepwater Horizon: the name itself demands a profound response. Certainly, there are some deep and uncomfortable conclusions to be drawn. For one, it seems that, despite the tough talk from politicians, deep-water drilling will recover, because we need it to. There is a reason why President Obama — hardly the epitome of a big oil patsy — opened up new areas off the coast of America for exploration, just weeks before the blowout at the Macondo well. In spite of grim environmental prognoses, the West makes slow progress towards shifting to alternative energy. America, like Britain, has an addiction to oil that is unlikely to be cured for decades, and Obama would rather, for obvious geopolitical reasons, source his country’s drug of choice in friendly waters.
But there is another, more lasting residue from this disaster. Indeed, it’s the only certainty. Eleven men are dead, because someone, somewhere, decided that they wanted to save money, or to make more money. Why? It’s not as if large oil companies live on the breadline. BP’s profits in 2008, for instance, were $25.6 billion. In 2009, they only made $14 billion. How much money do they need, or want? It’s the same question Jake Gittes asks Noah Cross, the cosmically wealthy water magnate in Polanski’s Chinatown. “Why are you doing it?” he asks. “How much better can you eat? What could you buy that you can’t already afford?” The answer, famously, is: “The future, Mr Gittes, the future.”
There is no future for Jason Anderson. As Shelley, his amiable and unfussy widow, says, there are only memories. While she serves me pot roast at her kitchen table, with a child on one arm and another dancing on the sofa, she tells me she now finds it difficult to turn on the television. “When they show pictures of the rig in flames, I think, ‘My husband didn’t get off that rig,’” she says. “It hurts. When people pick up that goop on the beaches, I think, ‘My husband’s ashes are in that goop.’ I feel for the fishermen and people who make their living off the water. But my husband can never ever work again. The environment will come back eventually. The fish will come back eventually. My husband will never come back.”
When I leave Shelley and her kids in Midfield, it’s an angry, close Texas evening, with every kind of weather in the air. And, as I drive back to Houston to catch a flight — two journeys that rely on men like Jason Anderson, and companies like BP — there is rain on the windscreen, and sun in the rear-view mirror.