Customer Review

10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Fine reasoning marred by a litany of technical errors, 28 Jan 2011
This review is from: Drowning in Oil: BP & the Reckless Pursuit of Profit (Hardcover)
This detailed examinaton of the events leading up to the Macondo blowout in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010 is extremely well structured and argued. It is written in a style that grabs the reader's attention in the first few paragraphs and holds it for the succeeding 258 pages.

The author builds up a convincing picture of a major company, one of the fabled "Seven Sisters", which following privatisation by Mrs Thatcher acquired an ambitious and energetic CEO John Browne. Mr (now Lord) Browne expanded BP and its reserves by buying Amoco and Arco, two mid-level US companies, and embarking on ever more ambitious offshore exploration targets. Meanwhile, he improved profitability by instigating a massive, relentless and never-ending cost-reduction drive.

His mistake, however, was to make it clear - though without actually saying so - that cost-cutting trumped everything else including safety. As a result maintenance was slashed, skilled and experienced older engineers were fired, key technical expertise and activities were outsourced, safety issues were neglected - especially if money was involved. These were all steps for which the negative effects do not become fully apparent for some years, whereas the dollar savings are immediate.

Moreover, Browne's practice of grooming and broadening his bright young protégés by shifting them from job to job with only a few months or years in each meant that not only did they fail to pick up the necessary technical skills normally obtained through long hard grafting, but they didn't stick around long enough to suffer the problems their inexperience and incompetence often engendered.

In such a business climate, mistakes accumulated, leading to terrifying accidents in refineries, pipelines and offshore operations, giving BP the worst safety record - by far - of all the US oil industry.

The Macondo blowout was, therefore, not a freak, unlucky event, but merely the inevitable outcome of all this. Yes, appalling technical errors were committed by the staff both offshore and more pertinently onshore. But the people, systems and organisation involved were the product of the poisonous corporate culture that Browne, and Tony Hayward the protégé who replaced him, engendered and fostered.

The author develops this central argument very effectively and convincingly, and it is undoubtedly sound. Indeed it is supported by the findings in January 2011 of the White House's Oil Spill Commission.

What a pity, therefore, that the book is rife with technical errors, mistaken terminology and even silly arithmetic mistakes and typos (I counted over forty). The book would also have benefited hugely from a few simplified line drawings and charts to illustrate some of the complex technical issues described (often wrongly) by the author. And a few photographs would have further enlivened the volume.

Furthermore, while the book is well annotated at the back with a per-chapter listing, it is annoying that the chapter numbers in the listing do not contain the chapter titles, while the chapter titles in the header of each page do not include the chapter numbers. This makes cross checking the annotations clumsy and irritating.

In summary, unless you are relaxed about all the errors (which in fairness do not materially impinge on the reasoning and overall conclusions), it would be better to wait for the second edition.
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