A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea by Joel Achenbach

The Race to Kill The BP Oil Gusher

2011. Simon & Schuster. Hardcover. 276 pages.

In a nutshell:

Joel Achenbach is a Washington Post staff writer who was assigned to cover the BP oil spill in 2010. In this book, armed with information provided by the Marine Board of Investigation, government emails, and interviews, Achenbach guides readers through the events of this massive environmental disaster. The book starts with the events of April 20, 2010 when the BP-leased Transocean rig, the Deepwater Horizon, exploded in flames, killing eleven people. Achenbach then covers both the technical and political response to the unrelenting oil gusher until it was finally stopped. (The oil plume was stopped on July 15th, but the permanent cementing of the Macondo well didn’t occur until mid-September 2010, after some intermediary and exploratory steps.)


Joel Achenbach is going to be one of the authors at the upcoming National Book Festival. I usually try to read a few books by Festival authors before going. I have enjoyed authors’ Festival sessions without having read their books, but it’s a nice bonus if I’m already familiar with at least one of their books.

While looking over this year’s line-up of authors and their bios, this book’s subject caught my eye. Like many Americans, I had followed the news stories on the BP oil spill with exasperation.  A year later, I remembered that the gusher was finally stopped, but was fuzzy on how exactly it had been stopped.

A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea not only cleared up for me how the gusher had been killed, but also why I was fuzzy in the first place. Achenbach does a superb job of showing the disparity between what the American public understood from news reports and what was actually going on behind the scenes.

This seems like it would be a difficult story to parlay into layman’s terms. First of all, there is the complicated science and engineering aspect. Achenbach’s approach to this aspect was to include excerpts of technical documents and then afterwards explain the significance of them – the take-away knowledge. So for those readers who want some scientific detail, that information is there, but for those who don’t have the background for it (like me), shortcuts to basic understanding are provided.

The story is also complicated by the multitude of players from the corporate and government spheres. Occasionally, I needed to reference the index at the back to remind myself of when we had last encountered such-and-such person. Overall, though, Achenbach introduced and reintroduced people well enough that I remembered their role in the disaster response as I read.

Not only does Achenbach bring clarity to the BP oil gusher story, but he also writes colorfully and with a nice dollop of humor here and there. Take this following excerpt:

The well was spewing oil as fast as ever, and BP began to suspect that the flow had gotten worse; that the mudding of the well had scoured it out, opened it up, like nasal mist up a nostril. This would be a debatable point. What’s certain is that Macondo’s hydrocarbons continued to shoot out the well as if they’d been fantasizing about being in open water for ten million years.

p. 149-150

Isn’t that just so vivid? And pretty much the whole book is just that energetic and vivid.

As A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea was published in April 2011, and the events were so recent, I imagined Achenbach writing under a particularly tight schedule. Achenbach’s stylistic choices sometimes had the flavor of under-pressure inspiration. For instance, Achenbach will frequently use the phrase “what comes to mind is” as he makes a comparison. (He has a knack for offbeat but apt comparisons, as seen in the excerpt above). This phrase “what comes to mind is” conjured up for me the image of the writer’s mind busily casting out into his pool of images and analogies. In this way, A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea had a certain raw and transparent quality about it.

This is not a criticism, but I had a mild disappointment that Achenbach never mentioned the oil-eating bacteria. I actually don’t know what role, if any, they had in the aftermath of the oil spill, but I remembered hearing a couple of news stories about these bacteria in 2010 and was hoping they would come up in the book. They just sounded so nifty.

I looked forward to reading this book every time I picked it up. I look forward to hearing Achenbach speak at the Festival next weekend. The epilogue is called “An Engineered Planet” and I’ll close with an excerpt of some of Achenbach’s big-picture conclusions:

The human race is gambling that an engineered planet can be made sustainable, nuclear weapons controlled and managed, crops and livestock genetically modified, machines deftly crafted on the nanometer scale, the electrical grid revamped to be more highly networked and “smart,” and perhaps the entire planet “geoengineered” to combat climate change. As we go down this technological path, we will count on complex systems to work correctly. We will assume that someone smart is in charge, looking over our world, protecting us. We will imagine a world full of blowout preventers that will actually prevent blowouts.

p. 251


**There weren’t any other reviews of this book when I did a search in the Book Blog Search Engine, so no excerpts from other book reviews this time.***


Filed under Non-Fiction

4 responses to “A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea by Joel Achenbach

  1. *shudder* Boy, I am not ready to read about this again. I’m glad he wrote the book though!

  2. Nice review, Christy! I think this is an important book on the oil spill crisis. Glad to know that Achenbach has written the book in such a way that it satisfies the curiosities of both readers who have the background on technology and those who are general readers.

    Hope you have a wonderful time at the National book festival! Looking forward to reading about your experiences there.

  3. Sounds like a really good book. I’m especially interested in the way you describe the disconnect between what was going on behind the scenes and what was being told to the public.

  4. Jenny – I’m definitely glad I read the book. Sometimes I need that retrospective follow-up to the news stories we follow in bits and pieces.

    Vishy – yes, my posts on the Book Festival will be soon!

    Unruly Reader – Books like this just remind me of how little I know of what’s really going on sometimes.

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