Today I joined the Green Liberal Democrat group on facebook and I’m feeling rather a hypocrite. The reason being is that I work in the oil industry which, to put it mildly, is not the greenest of places to be.
Standards in the North Sea have gone up in the past decade; that is certain. When I first went offshore in 1997, waste was not segregated, recycling was non-existent and the attitude towards spills was to follow the Eleventh Commandment: Thou Shalt Not Get Caught. I still smart under the dogs’ abuse I suffered from the crew of a British rig for reporting a half-mile slick to the OIM (Offshore Instillation Manager: the captain of a rig or platform). Although the rig management was supportive of my action, the guilty crew were less than amused and accused me of making a fuss over nothing more than five litres of light lubricant. I told them that when it came to pollution, I have no sense of humour.
Things are better now. Led by the Scandinavians, waste is segregated effectively, although standards could still be higher in some rigs in the UK Sector. Oil-based mud (used in drilling) is not used when there is a viable and more environmentally-friendly alternative and when it has to be used, the rock cuttings are tightly controlled and are shipped back to land for cleaning and processing. The Scandinavians are not ahead on everything though: in my particular line of work, seismic surveying, the regulations on the disturbance to marine mammals are far tighter in the UK sector than either Denmark or Norway. The Norwegians used to have a popular tee-shirt that read “If we had dolphins, we’d eat them too!” so I guess there are cultural differences to be bridged in both directions.
That is the North Sea. Although the major oil companies are keen to use green-wash, outside Europe the colour drains quickly away. Friends who have worked in Nigeria tell me that if Shell wants to drill a well in the Niger Delta, a straight channel is simply dredged through the marshland in order to position the swamp-barge in the desired position. Anybody who has flown over Baku can tell one of the pools of oil left over from years of activity, both under the Soviets and Western companies.
Another relic of Soviet activity is the ghost platforms in the Caspian Sea off the coast of Turkmenistan. Sailing through them is a thought-provoking experience. The Russians used to have a platform-factory in Cheleken. As Turkmenistan became independent, the Russians left but not before trashing the facility and sinking an unfinished platform in the deep-water access to the port. Sailing out into the Caspian gave a example into both the great industry and the limitations of the Soviet system. I counted about fifty platforms before reaching my destination and I’m sure that they continued over the horizon beyond. But all of them were in various states of disrepair: from being reasonably intact to being completely wrecked, some just a few bits of metal sticking proud from the sea. The reason was the Soviet Union did not have the technology to produce effective drilling mud. (Mud is important to keep the over-pressured fluids, be they oil, gas or water, from reaching the rig in an uncontrolled manner. The physical forces of such blowouts are tremendous and if hydrocarbons are present, stand well back and hope nothing lights the blue-touch paper). Anyway, the Soviets didn’t have effective mud and over one fifth of their rigs in that field suffered catastrophic blowouts. I was told 1500 men died in three years of activity during the 1980s. God only knows and at the time nobody cared about what the effect was on the environment.
The worst example of mass pollution I actually witnessed was in Cabinda, Angola during the Millennium celebrations of 2000. I had arrived in Cabinda just before Christmas (lucky me!) and apart from being separated from friends and family, the place wasn’t bad. Turtles were heaving themselves up the crab-infested sandy beach and a family of sea-eagles seemed to be the local royalty. The first I saw something was wrong was the helicopter with the spray-boom going up-and-down about a mile offshore. This went on for a couple of days before I started to smell the oil. On the third day the slick struck the beach. It is hard to describe how sickening a large oil slick is: the sweet-stale-chemical odour that fills one’s nose and after long exposure tears the eyes. The wildlife was wiped out. What was the oil company’s reaction to all this? Nothing. The staff at the oil camp were told nothing. Outgoing calls were monitored and if the slick was mentioned the line would be cut.
Naturally the story spread in the camp though. It seems that a local employee on night-shift in the oil-storage depot had heard an alarm go off at about one o’clock in the morning. Instead of doing something about it, he knocked off the alarm and went back to sleep. By eight in the morning between 20,000 and 40,000 barrels of oil had been pumped into the ocean. The local base did what it can with the resources available to disperse the slick but it was too much. Now here’s the cynical bit: corporate headquarters in Houston decided to suppress the incident rather than act upon it and call in help from outside. Under international law, a major spill is more than forty barrels of oil. The oil company calmly announced that thirty nine barrels had been spilt and that it was amazing how a little oil could cause such a mess. Yes, it is amazing. When I left Cabinda and flew along the coastline, the beaches were black all the way down to the mouth of the Congo, about 180 miles to the south.
And the name of this beacon of global partnership? Let’s just say I have an urge to throw something at the television if an advert for Chevron appears.
That was seven years ago. It is natural to dwell on such dramas but the day-to-day running of the business is, in its own way, just as polluting. I have never dared to go to one of these websites that calculates one’s carbon footprint. I recycle at home, my wife takes the bus rather than the car, the house is fitted with low energy lighting where practicable… but all that is nothing when compared to how many business miles I fly in a year. Many companies are keen to recruit young people from developing countries, which is good; then move them to developed countries in order to keep pay low in the industry. Naturally people want to return home at least once a year so those extra flights are part of the deal. The actual running of an oil rig must be extremely energy consuming. I once asked why the external lighting has to be kept on during the daytime. The reason is that the generators run more efficiently under full loading. At my home base in Aberdeen, I have often tried to get people to turn off computers (or at least the monitors) at the end of the day but to little effect. The other week I mentioned the lack of aluminium recycling facilities and was told that situation was known but to put my criticism down in writing.
As Kermit the Frog said: its not easy being green. But one has to keep trying.