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BP before the spill

June 4, 2010 |  8:58 am


Grand Central Publishing certainly has timing: This week, the company published Tom Bower’s “Oil: Money, Politics, and Power in the 21st Century,” a book that, in surveying the oil industry, devotes considerable space to the activities of BP around the world.

Considering what’s going on in the Gulf of Mexico because of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the book may no longer be the “definitive, untold modern history of oil” that the publishers claim. (How can it, when what's happening now is sure to change everything about the international oil industry in the 21st century?) On the other hand, Bower’s book is certainly other things: It’s ominous, even prescient, in what it says about BP’s past practices.

A journalist and investigative historian, Bower tells of BP’s difficulties in the Gulf of Mexico with another platform named Thunder Horse (its previous nickname, Crazy Horse, in honor of Neil Young’s music, was changed, Bower says, after protests by Sioux Indians). The company was intent on using such new rigs to drill 30,000 feet into rock and use computer-guided drills to unleash what they believed was another “100 billion barrels of oil to be found under the sea in the Gulf and the Atlantic.” Then, as Bower relates, in 2005, Hurricane Dennis hit the gulf and Thunder Horse was overwhelmed:

After the hurricane passed, the returning teams discovered the rig tilting at a dangerous angle. Defective valves in the hydraulic control system had allowed water to drain out of the ballast tanks. Oil was leaking from equipment on the seabed that linked the well to the pipeline… Sending divers to carry out repairs a mile down was impossible, and the damage was too great to repair with robots. The equipment would have to be brought to the surface.

And this, from two workers at Shell, a BP rival:

Thunder Horse was more than just a tilting platform—it was symbolic of the company. ‘Poor design and supervision,’ smiled Shell’s head of design about the calamity. ‘BP always shoots from the hip,’ said a Shell technician, characteristically dismissing the abilities of a rival. ‘Their technology and engineering is second rate. They’re always coming to us for help.'

Prior to April, such comments would have been taken as just one company’s bravado. The Times’ coverage continues.

--Nick Owchar

Photo: A May photo of a pelican sitting in an oil slick at the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig collapse in the Gulf of Mexico. Credit: Gerald Herbert / Associated Press