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Diving Deep

Disaster on the Horizon by Bob Cavnar explores the Gulf oil spill


Published November 24, 2010 at 11:49 a.m.

Bob Cavnar on the Gulf
  • Bob Cavnar on the Gulf

“Phoom!” Former Texas oilman and part-time Vermonter Bob Cavnar begins his new book on the BP oil disaster with that approximation of the “impossible-to-describe sound” of an East Texas gas well exploding in his face.

The blast blew off Cavnar’s clothing and catapulted him headfirst into a ditch flooded with chemicals. That was the lucky part. Although his face was burned in the flash fire, “landing in the ditch had saved me from critical injury,” Cavnar writes in Disaster on the Horizon: High Stakes, High Risks, and the Story Behind the Deepwater Well Blowout, published by Vermont’s Chelsea Green.

That too-close encounter with death in 1981 “changed me forever,” he relates. For all its flaming theatrics, however, the accident wasn’t a full-on epiphany. Cavnar, then 28, had already seen several men injured or killed in the three years he’d been working on the frontlines of the oil and gas industry. He’d learned that unsafe practices and irresponsible decision making were routine.

Those experiences, along with his subsequent stints as an energy-company entrepreneur and executive, have given Cavnar deep insights into not only the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, but also the federal policies and industry behavior that made it inevitable. In this book, he combines common sense with a sense of decency to produce a progressive analysis from an insider’s perspective.

On April 20, the explosion on BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling platform killed 11 workers and triggered the biggest oil spill in U.S. history. President Barack Obama, who had just proposed opening vast stretches of coastline for oil drilling, said nothing about the unfolding disaster in his Earth Day speech two days later. Cavnar points out these sad ironies in his book and in a telephone interview from Colorado, where he’s now running a natural-gas production company.

“Obama, whom I support very strongly, has aided and abetted in the cover-up of the real damage of the spill,” Cavnar says in his native-Texan twang. The president had “overreacted” to the Bush administration’s complicity with the oil industry, Cavnar suggests. A purge of officials cozy with companies such as BP left the new administration without the expertise needed to respond effectively to what was happening in the Gulf: “There was no one in the White House who understood the depth of this disaster.”

As a result, Obama and his energy team became “100 percent dependent on BP” for staunching the spill and managing the cleanup, Cavnar adds. It was a political partnership, too. BP and the administration “had a common interest in getting the whole thing off of television as fast as they could.”

In this they have succeeded. The attention-deficient mainstream media today ignore a story that they covered saturation-style for much of the summer. Because the oil is now largely out of sight, it’s also out of mind for media.

But most of the oil that gushed from BP’s woebegone well has not been recovered, burned off or bombarded with toxic dispersants, Cavnar says. He cites a test BP conducted a few years ago to determine what might occur in the aftermath of a deepwater blowout. About 80 percent of the spilled oil remained well below the ocean surface, invisible to monitors.

The same phenomenon has occurred in the Gulf, he suggests: “Most of the oil is in deepwater columns that can’t be seen. Biologists say microbes will eventually degrade that oil, but it can be decades before that happens. It will be years until we understand the extent of the environmental damage. And we may never understand it.”

Cavnar himself understands the oil and gas industry well enough to have made a comfortable living from it. He worked for a succession of fossil-fuel companies, as well as Chase Manhattan Bank, before becoming president and CEO of a Houston firm that explores the Gulf for oil and gas reserves. In between jobs in 2005, he rented a house in Woodstock. Cavnar knew the town a bit because his hotel-consultant wife, Gracie, had done work for the Woodstock Inn & Resort.

The couple, who have three adult children, had planned to spend a couple of months in Vermont and similar amounts of time in New Hampshire and Maine, with a view toward choosing a future retirement site. “But we never got further than Woodstock,” Cavnar says. The Cavnars soon bought a home, in which Howard Dean is now an occasional dinner guest.

“We were full-fledged Texas Deaniacs” during the 2004 Democratic presidential campaign, Cavnar recalls. The couple also supported the former Vermont governor in his successful bid to become chairman of the Democratic National Committee. “We became good friends with Howard,” Cavnar says.

It was Dean who helped put Cavnar in touch with Chelsea Green about a year ago. The idea then, remembers the publishing company’s president, Margo Baldwin, was for Cavnar to write a book about U.S. energy policy. Within a couple of weeks of the BP blowout, however, that topic had been replaced by the one examined in Disaster on the Horizon. Holed up in Houston, Cavnar hammered out a manuscript in six weeks.

As the first in-depth analysis of the causes and consequences of the spill, the book “should be selling extremely well,” Baldwin says. She acknowledges, though, that such success almost certainly will not ensue, because, inside the mass-media cocoon, it’s now as though the spill never happened. Chelsea Green is nonetheless carrying out a “guerrilla marketing” offensive in support of the book, Baldwin notes.

Cavnar will make himself available for book signings and talks, even though just last month he was appointed CEO of Luca Technologies, the Colorado natural-gas production company. He took the job partly because Luca conducts its operations in a sustainable way, Cavnar says. The company restores old wells and generates methane, which he describes as “the cleanest fossil fuel you can burn.” Methane can be the bridge, he suggests, “between the old and the new energy technologies.”

Cavnar also remains an all-star player in the oil and gas industry because “it’s in my blood,” he explains. “I feel like I can do it better and cleaner than anyone else.”

Then, too, oil and gas are “a necessary commodity,” he adds. “As much as people may hate it, everyone burns some amount of hydrocarbons.”