Continuing Fallout From Fracking In Pennsylvania, BP Oil Spill

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Is the water in Dimock, Pennsylvania really safe to drink?

That's the question some residents are asking after the recent EPA study declared it is. Dimock has been at the center of a national debate over use of a drilling method called "fracking" to extract natural gas.

State environmental officials said drilling leaks had led to explosive levels of methane in some drinking water. And residents had sued the drilling company, Cabot Oil and Gas of Houston, saying their water is polluted with other chemicals from the drilling.

Questions Remain Over BP Oil Spill

Abrahm Lustgarten reported on fracking in Pennsylvania for ProPublica, he's also author of "Run to Failure: BP and the Making of the Deepwater Horizon Disaster"

Lustgarten says that a recent settlement reached by the oil company BP to pay $7.8 billion to compensate thousands of Gulf coast residents for damage from the company's massive 2010 oil spill leaves the most complex questions un-resolved, including how much oil was actually spilled. Read more of his take on the spill in the book excerpt below.

Book Excerpt: 'Run to Failure: BP and the Making of the Deepwater Horizon Disaster'

By: Abrahm Lustgarten

The burst of gas came from so deep within the bowels of the earth it may as well have come from another world. Thirteen thousand feet beneath the ocean’s silty floor and the earth’s crust and another five thousand feet underwater—a total depth farther than fourteen Empire State buildings stacked atop one another—hydrocarbons in the form of hot fluid saturated with dissolved methane seeped through the reinforced walls of a new oil well.

The well, an exploratory venture drilled by BP and called Macondo, was a three-mile-long tube of cement and steel that had been burrowed into the million-and-a-half-year-old rock in the weeks before. It was one of the industry’s most important new eAorts to find oil in the deep waters oA the southern coast of the United States, and, while not the deepest, the Macondo was pushing the limits of drilling technology
and risk.

This particular well had been a cursed project from the start. Miles
above, where the sun skipped along the lapping waves of the Gulf of
Mexico, the Macondo project’s FHJ oil workers had battled for weeks
to control wild kicks of gas and to adapt to a series of setbacks doled
out by this complicated and unpredictable well. Under stress and
guided by conflicting mandates to drill quickly, drill safely, and drill
cheaply, the workers had often made the wrong decisions. Now the
Macondo was preparing to issue them one last challenge.

Inside the well, the gas, squeezed out of the earth by the natural
pressure of the compressed rock and shoved upward by its own buoyancy,
shot skyward at a pace that would bring it to the surface of the
gulf in a matter of minutes. As it rose it expanded rapidly, the volume
increasing the higher it got in the well, until the steel pipe and casing
that channeled it upward could barely contain its explosive force.
On the ocean floor, the kick—as such a geologic burp is called in
the oil industry—shot through the top of the well at the seafloor and
continued upward through the mile-deep water in the long hose of
steel called a riser pipe that connected the well to the surface. There,
it slammed into the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, a thirty-story
structure with a footprint the size of an average Walmart Supercenter
floating in the Gulf of Mexico. The rig was owned by a contractor,
Transocean, and most of the crew on board were Transocean employees,
all of whom were contracted to work for BP. With a burst like a
canon, pent-up pressure from the oil and gas exploded from the twentyone-
inch pipe, which rose up out of the dark water. Bolts sheared oA
and valves were forced open. Drilling mud that had filled the well to
cool the drill bit and balance the well pressure spewed across the deck
of the rig, rushing against doors and spilling across stairways. With a
roaring hiss, a cloud of natural gas began to envelop the rig.
The gas started at the drill floor, a small raised platform underneath
the tower of a drilling derrick in the center of the Deepwater Horizon’s
main deck. The drill floor, one of the highest working floors on the
structure, is where the drill pipe is managed and decisions are made
about the fluids and pressure in the well. From there, the gas spread to
the rig’s main deck below and toward two subdecks.

On the drilling floor, the Deepwater’s driller on duty, Dewey
Revette, had been monitoring the well readings and watching for a
kick, but he hadn’t seen the signs—a strange but subtle fluctuation in
well pipe pressure on multiple monitors. A few minutes earlier a sudden
rise in pressure had broken a pump valve, and Revette had dispatched
three of his crew to go belowdecks and fix it. When the blowout came,
Revette, a driller named Stephen Curtis, and the rig’s toolpusher, or
drilling supervisor, Jason Anderson, scrambled to control the burst
of gas. Anderson, cool-headed, had spent nine years working on the
Deepwater Horizon and knew what to do. First, he diverted the
spurting mud into a gas separator, thinking it would help capture the
explosive materials from the messy mud. Then he triggered one of the
emergency valves on the rig’s blowout preventer, a three-hundred-ton
piece of machinery lying on the gulf ’s floor meant to seal oA the well in
the case of a violent kick. But it was too late.

Two flights below, on the Deepwater Horizon’s second deck, Mike
Williams manned the rig’s electronics shop, next to the engine room.
There, in a steel box full of controls and monitors, he guided the platform’s
electrical systems and power. A few feet away, diesel turbines
generated that power and spun the drill bits miles inside the earth.
Suddenly, Williams heard a deafening whine as the revolutions of the
engines increased. But the danger—an envelope of gas that ballooned
from the top of the riser pipe on the drilling floor above—was invisible.
Neither Williams nor anyone else on the rig except the small group
that had scrambled to the drill deck had been told that the Macondo
was blowing out.

The rig had an extensive network of sensors that were supposed
to detect a combustible cloud of gas before it could reach the engines
and the control room and issue a warning. Those alarms were meant to
trigger a series of closing valves designed to keep the gas from burning
up in the engines: one of the most important forms of protection in
case of an accident. But the sensors didn’t react, and the valves never
shut. The gas saturated the air, turning the rig’s engines’ normal cooling
and ventilation intake into a source of gaseous fuel. The motors
sucked the fumes out of the air, screaming higher and faster, their pistons
whipping back and forth furiously. Another critical safety backup,
the blowout preventer that Anderson had already tried to trigger in
order to cut oA the well, also failed, meaning the gas cloud on the rig
would only get bigger. By the time Williams realized what was unfolding,
there was little he could do to change it. He ran toward a fortified
steel exit door, but as he reached it, one of the engines exploded. The
six-foot-tall plate of metal blew oA its hinges, striking him midstride.
Dazed and bleeding, he slowly picked himself up, only to be slammed
back down again by a devastating second blast.

On the deck above Williams, the Deepwater Horizon’s derrick was
instantly engulfed in flames. The men on the drilling floor, including
Jason Anderson, were killed quickly, but dozens of others were crushed
or twisted or slashed by flying debris and were desperately crawling
out of their own horrific emergencies, trying not to be entombed in an
industrial grave. In his stateroom, Jimmy Harrell, Transocean’s most
senior supervisor on the rig, was temporarily blinded by flying insulation
as the walls of his berth collapsed on him in the shower. On the
second deck, Randy Ezell, the rig’s senior toolpusher, was blown violently
against the wall of his o[ce and buried in debris.

Williams stumbled out toward a set of steel steps only to find that
the walkway, which would have taken him up to the main deck, was
missing. The engines were gone; the whole back of the rig was gone.
Wiping away blood that blocked his vision, Williams sought another
way. He heard a plea for help and stumbled over the body of an injured
colleague. Above them a wall of black smoke drifted up from raging,
seventy-five-foot flames. Williams couldn’t carry the man. All he could
do was try to save himself.

A short time later, desperate to escape the searing heat and giant
cherry-balls of fire, Williams leapt oA the railings into the black night,
tumbling ninety feet into the roiling, burning, oil-streaked water of
the Gulf of Mexico.

JEANNE PASCAL turned on her TV on April HF, HdFd, just a few hours
after the blast, to see a spindle of black smoke slithering into the sky
from an oil platform on the oceanic expanse of the Gulf of Mexico.
Right away she thought that it was a BP disaster unfolding on the
screen. For a long while she sat transfixed on an overstuAed couch in
her Seattle-area home, her feelings shifting from shock to anger. God,
they just don’t learn, she thought.

Pascal, a career Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) attorney
only seven weeks into her retirement, knew as much as anyone in the
federal government about BP, which had contracted the Deepwater
Horizon rig to drill the Macondo well. And that morning, she understood
in an instant what it would take others months to grasp: in BP’s
twenty-year quest to compete with the world’s biggest oil companies,
its managers had become deaf to risk and systematically gambled with
safety at hundreds of facilities and with thousands of employees’ lives.
At the EPA, Pascal’s job had been to act as a behind-the-scenes
babysitter for companies whose repeated violations or misconduct
might disqualify them from billions of dollars in contracts and other
benefits from the federal government. When they got in trouble, it
was her job to guide them back toward being responsible and compliant
companies. Over the years she’d persuaded hundreds of troubled
energy, mining, and waste-disposal companies to quickly change their
behavior. When she was first assigned to BP, in Fggh, she thought that
the company would be another routine assignment. But BP, it turned
out, was in a league of its own.

For twelve years, she had watched the company flirt with one accident
after another and struggle to correct its mistakes. On her watch
BP had been fined hundreds of millions of dollars and charged with four
federal crimes—more than any other oil company, in her experience—
and had demonstrated what she described as a pattern of disregard for
regulations and for the EPA. The company had repeatedly cut out key
safety processes and let equipment languish to save a few thousand dollars
at a time. It had taken risks at its wells in Alaska, on its platforms
in the Caspian Sea, and at its refineries in Scotland. Undoubtedly, she
thought, it must have done so in the Gulf of Mexico, too.

Across the United States but in Alaska in particular, there had been
an inordinate number of warnings and many close calls, some of which
could have turned into disasters. Equipment that handled explosive
gases and volatile oils was left in poor repair, and the workers who
tended these devices were pushed with excessive hours and unrealistic
quotas and then rewarded with bonuses for helping the system limp
along with minimal investment. BP’s refinery business seemed no different.
Four years earlier, an explosion at a refinery in Texas City, on
the gulf coast, killed Fi workers and sent Fhd people to hospitals. The
common thread, Pascal thought, was one deeply woven into BP management
culture—that preventative operations cost money. There was
a corresponding belief that the chance of an accident was slim.
For a long time, Pascal thought something like the Deepwater
Horizon disaster was imminent, and for years she had fought to prevent
it. In late Hddg, she warned o[cials in Washington and BP executives
that the company’s approach to safety and environmental issues
was reckless. The implication was that another disaster was inevitable,
and an environmental catastrophe likely.

PASCAL WASN't the only one with concerns about BP. By early HdFd
there was a growing contingent of legislators, government o[cials,
former employees, and even executives at other oil companies who
were increasingly nervous about how BP ran its operations. Some of
them were actively working to prevent a disaster like the Deepwater
Horizon explosion.

When the Macondo well was being drilled, several members of
Congress demanded that BP Alaska’s chief executive answer questions
about the company’s safety problems there, and openly questioned
whether BP could be trusted with some of America’s most important
energy assets. BP, after all, operated the bulk of Alaska’s oil fields and ran
the Trans Alaska Pipeline, the single conduit ferrying some h percent of
the nation’s oil to the lower lh. The Department of Justice was still pursuing
a civil case after past BP spills in Alaska, and at least one former
senior investigator warned that another major accident was likely.
The state of Alaska was suing BP for negligence, and BP’s probation
o[cer there was weighing whether the company had violated its
agreements to improve safety and operations. Meanwhile, the Department
of Transportation had its eye on BP’s pipeline management, and
the Occupational Safety and Health Administration was about to levy
tens of millions of dollars in fines for what it described as some of
the most flagrant and willful violations of worker safety the agency’s
administrators had ever witnessed.

Inside the company itself, whistle-blowers were amassing in
increasing numbers—an ombudsman’s o[ce set up by BP to handle
such internal complaints had reviewed more than two hundred cases,
including serious allegations that safety procedures had been disregarded
and that hasty engineering was putting the company’s facilities
and operations at risk from Alaska to the Gulf of Mexico.
Even some of BP’s own former management were weary, and
in March—just four weeks before the blowout on the Deepwater
Horizon —BP’s safety and environment manager for the company’s
Gulf of Mexico operations resigned, claiming that the company wasn’t
paying enough attention to safety and environmental risks.
BP, in the gulf, should have been at the top of its game. It had
extraordinary experience in deepwater drilling and in the Gulf of
Mexico. While the Macondo endeavor was pushing the limits of the
company’s experience, few companies had spent more time exploring
oAshore than BP, or invested more in both leases to drill and the technology
to drill.

Much of the criticism the company had endured related to aging
infrastructure in BP oil fields that were past their prime. But the gulf
was where the newest equipment and most sophisticated technology
were being deployed, and it was there that BP had some of the
best technical experts in the industry to implement them. The projects
in the gulf were supposed to be diAerent from some of BP’s other
endeavors. In the gulf, BP stood at the cusp of modern technology.
This project was among the most important investments that BP, as a
corporation, was making for the future.

Yet there appeared to be a sense of complacency. BP cut and pasted
portions of its disaster plan from a website describing conditions
halfway around the world. (The company called for the protection
of walruses, which don’t live in the gulf.) Both the company and the
government regulators who oversaw the Macondo project rested on
what they described as a thirty-year record of oAshore drilling without
major incident, even though there were plenty of examples to contradict
that story.

EIGHTEEN HOURS AFTER Williams jumped overboard and a day after
Pascal awoke to wall-to-wall television coverage of the disaster, the
Deepwater Horizon, still burning atop an open sea, sank to the bottom
of the gulf. Eleven people had burned to death or drowned. Seventeen
people had been injured. A broken pipe with an opening the size
of a basketball began spewing millions of gallons of oil into the water
nearly a mile below the surface.

The world soaked up news about the accident, hungry to understand
what it meant, and how devastating the oil spill was going to be
for the gulf ’s environment. Immediately, important questions were
raised about what had led to the accident: Why didn’t the gas sensors
and the blowout preventer function? Had BP cut corners in the cement
job that was supposed to contain the high-pressure kick of gas out of
the well? Why hadn’t tests that every oil company routinely performs
to guarantee the integrity of its well construction detected whatever
cracks, gaps, or weaknesses had allowed the gas to seep out in the first
place? And why, if the Macondo was permitted as an exploratory well,
did BP follow procedures and make one decision after another that
would normally only be applied to a production well, for which the
risks were known and quantified? Was it about the money?
It would take many months to answer these questions. But right
away Pascal, as well as several whistle-blowers and former investigators
and oil industry executives who knew the company well, already
understood that something larger was in play. These were people who
had watched or worked with BP over the past fifteen to twenty years.
While their perspectives and opinions varied, they agreed that there
was something about BP that set it apart from the rest of the oil industry,
something about it that seemed more eager, more hasty, and yet
cavalier and even arrogant.

As they each reflected on the company’s history in the context of
what was unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico, they saw a pattern. The
explosion and oil spill were not anomalies. The causes of the disaster
didn’t originate on the Deepwater Horizon rig in the days or weeks
before the accident. In fact, the fall of dominoes that would set in
motion one of the oil industry’s most deadly disasters and worst environmental
catastrophes began years before. The roots of the story of
the Macondo failure concern corporate responsibility, business ethics,
and leadership and go back at least two decades, to a point at which BP
executives sought to redefine the company and reposition it as one of
the great corporations of our time.

Because the series of missteps goes back so far, and was so well
known by so many people—o[cials and company executives alike—the
events that unfolded on the Deepwater Horizon in April HdFd were
also predictable. Pascal, the Department of Justice, former employees
at BP, all knew something like this might one day happen. Perhaps
even the chief executives that led BP through its defining years—Sir
John Browne and Tony Hayward—also knew that the strains they put
on their company might one day lead to disaster. All of them had failed
to prevent it. This is the story of why.

Excerpted from "Run to Failure: BP and the Making of the Deepwater Horizon Disaster," by Abrahm Lustgarten. Copyright W.W. Norton & Company.


  • Abrahm Lustgarten, ProPublica reporter and author of "Run to Failure: BP and the Making of the Deepwater Horizon Disaster"

This segment aired on March 30, 2012.


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