July 5, 2011

In this program we will talk with journalist Mike Manger, who has been studying the Gulf Oil spill and the history of British Petroleum that lead up to it. His book is Poisoned Legacy: The Human Cost of BP’s Rise to Power.

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Our Discussion with Mike Magner

The British Petroleum Gulf Oil spill is still very much in our memories as probably the worst environmental disaster of our time. Our guest on the phone tonight is Mike Magner, who has written a book about BP and the Gulf disaster. It’s called Poisoned Legacy: The Human Cost of BP’s Rise to Power and it’s published by St. Martin’s press. Mike is a longtime journalist, and he was writing about BP well before the Macondo Well Blowout on April 20, 2010.

Part I: BP History

  • In this first part of the interview, we’d like to talk about your research into BP’s rise to power and some of the episodes in its history prior to the Gulf spill. Could you give us something of BP’s background, maybe going all the way back to its origins in the deserts of Persia a hundred years ago?
    • The D’Arcy Concession
    • Anglo-Persian oil
    • The name BP
    • Is/was British petroleum a national (i.e. British) company?
  • Just how large was/is BP compared to the other big oil companies such as Mobil/Exxon and Royal Dutch Shell? How was it affected by merger-mania over the last several decades?
  • You write extensively about (Lord) John Browne (of Madingly), CEO of BP from 1995 to 2007. In the late ’90s, he was credited with rebranding BP and making it a leader in green energy, parting company with the other big oil companies. Please tell us about Browne. Was BPs push to become green for real?
  • But even as John Browne was talking about environmental issues, there were problems. Your own research and writing started in Neodesha , Kansas. What were the problems and consequences there?
  • You also write about major problems–disasters–in Alaska and Texas. What did these tell us about BPs corporate policies, especially toward maintenance and safety? (personal safety vs. large-scale safety)

Part II: The Gulf and its Aftermath

You provide a minute by minute account of the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon. We found your narrative to be extremely well written and engaging. Would you read a little for us?

  • We suggest p. 174, full para 3, “Within a couple of hours . . .” to p. 175 end of full para. 3, “Just then, a massive explosion occurred.” Or your choice of passages.
  • Your book documents the months following the blowout in detail–the repeated unsuccessful efforts to cap the well, government intervention (and nonintervention), BP pledges to stay and pay ’till the problem was solved and remediated. What’s your take at this point on how well or badly that was done? What could/should have been done?
  • Your book emphasizes the human costs of the tragedy:
    • You’ve spoken with family members of the men who were killed. What kinds of loss have they experienced?
    • Will the fishing and tourism industries recover?
    • Has BP genuinely compensated people for their losses?

Our guest has been Mike Magner, the book is Poisoned Legacy: The Human Cost of BP’s Rise to Power. It’s published by St. Martin’s, and we found it to be not only informative, but a page turner. We were hoping for a happy ending, but there isn’t one . . . yet.

A Little History of Oil

We were curious about the beginnings of the oil boom that has led to the Gulf disaster and found this story from the Paleontological Research Institute

The Story of Oil in History of Petroleum

The most important oil well ever drilled was in the middle of quiet farm country in Titusville in northwestern Pennsylvania in 1859. For this was one of the first successful oil wells that was drilled for the sole purpose of finding oil. Known as the Drake Well, after “Colonel” Edwin Drake, the man responsible for the well, it began an international search for petroleum, and in many ways eventually changed the way we live Why did Drake choose Titusville, Pennsylvania. to drill for oil? Well, the number one beacon was the many active oil seeps in the region. As it turns out, there had already been wells drilled that had struck oil in the region. The only problem was, they weren’t drilling for oil. Instead, they were looking for salt water or just plain drinking water. When they struck oil, they considered it a nuisance and abandoned the well. At the time, no one really knew what to do with the stuff if they found it. The truth was, Edwin Drake was not a “Colonel” of anything. He and his financiers simply invented the title to impress the locals, many of whom laughed at what was, for a time, known as “Drake’s Folly”. With the financial backing of the newly formed Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company (soon to be renamed Seneca Oil Company), Drake set off to Titusville, Pennsylvania in 1857 to survey the situation. Drilling began in the summer of 1859. There were many problems with this well, and progress was slow and financially costly. The initial money the investors had fronted Drake ran out, and he had to borrow more to keep drilling.\ On August 27, 1859, Drake and Smith drilled to a depth of 21.18 m (69 1/2 feet). It was not until the next morning, on August 28, when the driller, “Uncle Billy” Smith, noticed oil floating in the hole they had pulled the drilling tools from the night before. By today’s standards, it was a pretty unremarkable hole, probably producing 20 barrels or less of oil per day. The timing could not have been better. Most of the financial backers had given up on the project and sent Drake the order to pay the remaining bills and close up shop. Drake received this order on the very day that he struck oil. Almost overnight, the quiet farming region changed in much the same manner as the gold rush towns of the Wild West. The flats in the narrow valley of Oil Creek, averaging only around 330 m (~1000 feet) wide were quickly leased, and hastily constructed derricks erected. Towns sprang up out of nowhere with people coming from all over looking to make their fortunes. This once quiet area suddenly became louder than anyone could have imagined, with steam engines and other types of machinery necessary to run the hundreds of wells that sprang up in the valley in the first couple of years. And the mud was fast becoming legendary. Due to the lack of geological knowledge of the rocks beneath which were actually producing the oil, wells were drilled almost at random in those first few years. Photographs show that derricks were built at extremely close proximity to one another in an attempt to get as much oil out of the ground as fast as one could. Frequent fires often raged out of control. In fact Drake’s initial well only last a few months before it burned to the ground. A second well was erected shortly thereafter. Consider this – Pennsylvania was responsible for 1/2 of the WORLD’S production of oil until the East Texas oil boom of 1901.