Saturday, August 30, 2014

Book Review: A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea by Joel Achenbach

This book is about the environmental disaster that happened in 2010 which popularly came to be known as ‘BP oil spill’. It was a technological crisis, geological calculations going wrong, a crisis no one saw coming. Risks of offshore drilling were well known to the oil & gas industry and deep-water drilling for oil was already decades old. While the man appeared to have mastered the art, nature proved him wrong. The tragic explosion on the huge drilling rig appeared to be a manageable accident initially but the oil gushing to the shores and the efforts to plug the hole going in vain only helped the spread of spill, dolphins and other marine life continued to die in record numbers. It was not just a leak in the oil well; the explosion had opened the river stream of hydrocarbons into the ocean. A classic industrial accident turned out to be an environmental crisis, politically sensational and daily news on the media which general public tracked with concern.

It took hundreds of engineers, scientists working together for months, use of remotely operated vehicles in the deep sea, engineers choreographing robotic ballets, pouring miles of cement to seal the well in order to contain the spill. BP had to face criminal charges and this crisis had cost the company $42.2 billion. The total oil discharge was estimated at 4.9 million barrels.

This book effectively brings out the irony that we are inhabitants of a planet that is becoming increasingly engineered. Off-shore drilling is embedding a complex engineered system with complex geological systems of nature. The industry learned its lessons from the crisis and there is no retreat from deep water technology. While technological advancements come there will be incidents of ‘frog in the boiling water’ too. (If you do not know the story here it is: There is a frog sitting in a pan of cold water that is gradually brought to a boil. The frog never realizes the time has to come to jump to safety. Result: boiled frog).

Author of this book, Joel Achenbach is a journalist and a regular contributor to National Geographic. In this book, he looks behind the scene, brings out the human story in the technological crisis.