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Book Review: Drowning in Oil: BP and the Reckless Pursuit of Profit by Loren C. Steffy

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Houston Chronicle business columnist Loren C. Steffy has produced a fascinating, gripping, revealing account with Drowning in Oil: BP and the Reckless Pursuit of Profit.

The book details events aboard the Deepwater Horizon in April of 2010 to start, but it digs deeper into what is revealed as a culture of cost-cutting boiling over within BP. Steffy documents years of incidents and poor management decisions, detailing the rise of key characters like John Browne and Tony Hayward alongside riveting outlines of horrifying events in Texas City and at other BP locations.

Steffy writes with a highly readable style, simply laying out the history of the London-headquartered company using a host of sources and accounts.

The book reads like fiction at times, with the author’s heavily-detailed accounts of explosions and conversations creating vivid, nearly fantastical images. The tragic history of BP is all-too-real, though, as the lost lives and environmental damage certainly attest to.

The book opens appropriately with a list of the dead, not only from the Deepwater Horizon incident but also from the Texas City refinery between the years of 2004 and 2009.

Steffy describes the explosion and aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon event twice. Each time, he approaches the incident from various perspectives using first-hand accounts as source material. The results make for riveting reading, putting the reader right in the thick of it as the real-life events unfold on the pages.

The author’s historical sense is keen, too, and he tells of the history of BP with precision and care. Starting with William Knox D’Arcy, Steffy details how the company moved through its corporate paces as the Anglo-Persian Oil Company to the present company many know and revile today.

A lot of time is appropriately spent on John Browne, the Baron of Madingley. The former chief executive of BP may have resigned in 2007, but Steffy contends that Browne’s culture of cutting safety corners had insurmountable consequences. The author draws a deeply personal picture of Browne, revealing his history in Alaska and as a closeted homosexual in the oil industry. These personal details may appear unnecessary at first, but Steffy aptly draws it in to a larger picture as the book carries on.

By the time Hayward, one of Browne’s “turtles,” was introduced as Browne’s replacement in May of 2007, the BP culture was hard to fight against. Steffy gives Hayward some credit for attempting to improve the company’s absurd safety record, but BP’s operations were already fraying beyond the point of repair.

With employees fearing for their lives working in some refineries, the Deepwater Horizon disaster was an inexorable side effect of the giant’s atrocious operations history.

Drowning in Oil does well to “drill, baby, drill” deep into the astonishing details of BP’s history and policies. Steffy is a thorough, straightforward author. His concerns largely lie with the loss of life and the general culture of cost-cutting of BP, painting an apt and terrifying picture of rampant, steady, costly neglect.

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