Friday, 28 September 2007

How Green is my Oil Industry? A personal look at the last ten years.

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.

Monday, 24 September 2007

Gordon Brown: Mind Games and General Elections

Just when the parties felt safe to stand down the troops and prepare for another winter at Westminster, Gordon Brown has seen fit to float the prospect of an autumn general election. It certainly has stirred up the media and for Sunday it was the main story on the BBC until news of the outbreak of Blue Tongue Disease on a Suffolk farm. Grabbing headlines is of course one of the reasons for the new speculation. The Labour Conference starts this week and Labour is naturally focusing the attention of everybody on that. All this spin about Brown being swayed by advice in his own party is nonsense: the Prime Minister is a control freak to the ‘n’th degree and it will be he that decides the timing of any general election; neither the unions nor other ministers and certainly not the Parliamentary Labour Party will have much in the way of input in Brown’s calculations.

I believe however there is a deeper purpose to Brown’s referral to the possibility of early elections and that is the effect is it hoped to have on the opposition parties. This cat-and-mouse of "will he, won't he" call a general election reminds me of the techniques employed by police negotiators in a siege situation: step up the drama to near crisis peak, relax it and then create another drama. Continue the cycle until the besieged are exhausted, then break down the door. Gordon Brown is attempting to stress his political opponents by using exactly the same mind game. He hopes by the time an election is really called, their activists will be in no shape to fight one. Brown has calculated that most of the British public are apathetic enough to be unaffected by this process.

Last night I listened to The Westminster Hour, read Nick Robinson's blog on the BBC site and heard Brown being interviewed this morning on the Today Programme. The game is still being played. To be frank, it has to be with collusion of the media because nobody raise the obvious point: neither Labour nor the Tories can afford to go to the country at this time. As of July 2007, Labour was in debt to the sum of £27million and the Conservatives owed £18million. The Liberal Democrats were looking pretty good in comparison, owing only £300,000. The recent scandals about payments for peerages and off-book "loans" means that New Labour and the Conservatives cannot employ the usual fund-raising routes to the wealthy elites, at least in the near future.

What would I do in Brown's position? I would go for an early election. The opposition are weak and it would head off the risk of disunity in the Labour movement - especially a factor in the unions at this time. Can New Labour afford to hold an election right now?

Not a chance.

Illustration credit: Gordon Brown after Newton by William Blake. Dave Brown

Friday, 21 September 2007

Is Ming Campbell Too Old to Lead the Lib Dems?

The quick answer is no, age shouldn't be an issue to when it comes to fulfilling the role of party leader. Both Ronald Reagan and Fran├žois Mitterrand were older and led both their parties and their countries successfully. Age is not the issue here.

So, why all the fuss? It wouldn't matter if it was just coming from the usual suspects in the media. Its not. The is a large section of the Liberal Democrat party that is posing the question "Is Ming the right leader for the party?"

I believe the answer is "No, he is not."

I have heard Ming speak. I am not one to deny his abilities and they are many: intelligent, experienced, articulate to name just three. But charismatic? Not enough I think. There is a fair amount of showmanship in being a good leader and Ming simply does not possess this.

Ming was a great deputy leader when Charles Kennedy was in charge. Ming lent gravitas and authority to Charles' laid-back style. Now that the spotlight is solely on Ming Campbell, his virtues are not enough to gain and hold the attention of the public.

In the next election, whenever that will be, I expect Ming to lead us and for the party to hold its own. But that should not be enough. The Liberal Democrats have a great deal to offer Britain and the British public and we need to be pressing forward in the polls. I simply do not see that occurring. The party will do okay: sorry, that is simply not good enough. I for one am more ambitious for the party.

After the next election I want to see Sir Menzies in a leading role of the Liberal Democrats. The party needs his wisdom and experience. So will the new leader.

Thursday, 20 September 2007

The Dark Divide

Viewed from the sea, the border between Israel and Gaza is a subtle affair; quite unlike the Israel Lebanon border where the no-man’s-land snakes over the hillsides in a broad stripe before dwindling into the distant east. Gaza from the sea looks just like another city which can be seen dotting the coast of the Mediterranean at regular intervals. True, maybe more high-rise towers, more densely packed than it near neighbours but nothing to especially draw the eye.

That is during the day. At night the scene is completely changed. While the coastal towns of Israel are shining with light, there is no sign of the city of Gaza. A passing ship may see the occasional headlamps of a car and imagine that one or two small villages and scattered homesteads occupy the land south of Ashdod. The tower blocks, the buildings, the streets; all become invisible. It is as if Gaza never was. The only clue that there is a border at all is a negative one: a strip of utter darkness that lies between the citizens of Israel and their near Palestinian neighbours.

That is the closest I have been to Gaza and although the view I describe is now several years old, I am certain that it has not changed. Indeed, from what I hear in the media it is worse now for the population of Gaza than it was then. The two-state “solution” that arose from the peace initiatives of the 1990s are now dead. Former US ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, stated as much this week. Now, I am not in the habit of agreeing with Mr. Bolton on many topics but in this I’m sure he is right. I do not, however, agree with his proposed solution: to carve up the remaining Palestinian populations between existing states, with Gaza going to Egypt and the West Bank to Jordan. I’m sure that the Israeli government would be more than happy with this; after all it has long being the policy of Israel to drive the Palestinians off the land claimed by Israelis and let the neighbouring states cope with the refugees should they choose to.

There are several objections to the Bolton suggestion. The first is the right to self-determination. These people are neither Egyptian nor Jordanian. They are Palestinian and I doubt that Palestinians of Gaza would be queuing up to join the repressive police-state that is Egypt. Secondly it assumes that Israel’s neighbours can swallow large numbers of new population, especially people that have been brutalised for many years. Egypt might be able to cope but I doubt that Jordan could. There are already hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees living in poverty in the country. Jordan has already closed its border to more. Maybe the assumption is that these people will be able to return home one day. Looking at the long-lived refugee camps of Palestinians in Lebanon, I have my doubts. Iraq has been trashed for a generation and those who have already left will not be returning soon. To bequeath another population on a fragile Jordan may well tip the balance for the country with the resulting in failed states running across the Middle East all the way from Israel’s eastern border to the western border of Iran, a truly horrific prospect.

It is perhaps time for Israelis to consider that which their policies have long attempted to avoid: what will happen if the Jewish people become minorities in their own state? For the citizens of Israeli, Gaza and the West Bank to live in one country and with equal rights under the law. Unrealistic and infeasible? At the moment, yes it is. Against the Zionist dream of a Jewish state? Yes. Would the majority of Palestinians have to renounce their claims on the land they have been driven from? Yes. Will the Jewish religion have to be granted special rights in the constitution of the new state of Israel-Palestine? Yes, that too. There would have to be much work to be done to bring this notion about and it would take time: a lot of time. Probably another forty years. It is not impossible though. Things have happened in my lifetime I never thought would happen: the fall of the Iron Curtain; Sinn Fein and the DUP in Northern Ireland working together in government. I know that these conflicts are not the same as Israel and Palestine. The point is that all conflicts have an end and despite the rhetoric on both sides, peace is seldom enforced by military means.

We all must work to break down the darkness that separates people.