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9 books about the gulf oil spill

April 19, 2011 |  1:20 pm

Gulfoil_2010

The BP oil spill that started below the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico began last April and continued for weeks. In today's paper, L.A. Times environmental editor Geoffrey Mohan reviews several books related to the spill. "Few of the books that have been written about the BP oil leak that began last April 20 with the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig are good history, and time is the primary culprit," Mohan writes. "[N]early all veer toward the polemical, political and ideological."

Online, Mohan reviews nine books about the incident. Three stand above the rest:

1. "Fire on the Horizon: The Untold Story of the Gulf Oil Disaster" by oil-rig mariner John Konrad and former Washington Post reporter Tom Shroder, Mohan writes, "deftly navigates around the good-guy versus bad-guy leitmotif.... Artfully and compellingly told, the book marries a John McPhee feel for the technology to a Jon Krakauer sense of an adventure turned tragic. Konrad writes, 'This is not a story of a rig, technology, the environment, corporate policy or government oversight, but it concerns each.' "

2. "A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea: The Race to Kill the BP Oil Gusher" by Joel Achenbach of the Washington Post, Mohan writes, "adds a candid view of the media's coverage." Mohan continues, "Achenbach lives up to his promises to make the disaster 'into a tale that everyone can comprehend,' with fluid, often Spartan prose and a candid tone.... Achenbach appears to be the only author among the bunch who bothered to obtain emails and other documents that were not revealed in testimony, which allows him to focus on Washington's response to the disaster."

3. "Drowning in Oil: BP and the Reckless Pursuit of Profit" by Loren C. Steffy. Mohan writes: "Steffy focuses unrelentingly on BP's persistent failure to change its management culture.... The culture that rewarded short-term gains business unit by business unit wound up eviscerating the company's engineering, training and safety corps. That left BP more susceptible than most to an industry-wide blind spot: 'Exploration for oil in the Gulf of Mexico had become ruled by the engineer's conceit that the industry's technology was impeccable and by the financial arrogance that argued that safety would never be compromised because the fallout from a disaster would be so great that companies would never cut corners.' "

After the jump: the other six gulf oil spill books.

4. "Black Tide: The Devastating Impact of the Gulf Oil Spill" by Antonia Juhasz. "Precious few of the books on the spill question the fundamental premise that it was 'the worst environmental disaster' in U.S. history, as Obama pronounced it and many in the media echoed," Mohan writes. "And here is where many fail both history and science. Guiltiest among the bunch is Antonia Juhasz, whose 'Black Tide' often begs its thesis, uses science selectively, and seeks refuge in anecdote when bold inquiry would have served better."

5. "A Sea in Flames: The Deepwater Horizon Oil Blowout" by Carl Safina. Mohan writes that the book is "angry, derisive, sarcastic, jocular and adds little scientific insight." But he does find value in Safina's conclusion: "The worst environmental disaster in history isn't the oil that got away. The real catastrophe is the oil we don't spill. It's the oil we run through our engines as intended.... The best way to respond to the Gulf disaster? Not cleaning birds, picking up turtles, spraying dispersants, or cleaning beaches. Rather, pulling the subsidies out from under Big Petroleum...and hurry toward better options."

6. "Blowout in the Gulf: The BP Oil Spill Disaster and the Future of Energy in America" by William R. Freudenburg and Robert Gramling. "Its prose, at times kitschy with metaphors and overuse of sarcastic asides, betrays its bias early," Mohan writes. "Once the authors settle down into their well-established expertise -- the history and economics of the oil industry, they offer a great primer on the oil industry and its regulation (or lack thereof)."

7. "In Too Deep: BP and the Drilling Race That Took It Down" by Stanley Reed and Alison Fitzgerald. "Although its history of BP is fascinating, the authors make halting progress toward their main thesis over many chapters," Mohan writes. He quotes their verdict: "What's striking about the Macondo disaster is that relatively low-level BP personnel on the rig made important decisions that cost the company many billions of dollars. They appear to have made the calls on whether or not to do certain tests, such as of the integrity of the cement in the well. The evidence smacks of a business unit that lacked clear procedures and rules of best practice."

8. "Disaster on the Horizon: High Stakes, High Risks and the Story Behind the Deepwater Well Blowout"  by Bob Cavnar, Mohan writes, "is a heavily polemical recounting of the disaster from a long-timer in the oil industry who runs a blog called the Daily Hurricane, and who appeared as an expert on CNBC during the blowout."

9. "In Deep Water: The Anatomy of a Disaster, the Fate of the Gulf, and How to End  Our Oil Addiction" by Peter Lehner with Bob Deans, Mohan writes, "was the first of the pack to be published, and while it is well written, it is essentially a long-form pamphlet following the party lines of the Natural Resources Defense Council, of which Lehner is executive director. It suffers from poor sourcing and footnotes, and reaches a predictable conclusion. That said, brevity is its chief virtue."

Read the complete review here.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: A ship in the Gulf of Mexico involved in the oil containment mission, June 2010. Credit: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times

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