Thursday, 19 November 2015

Thirty Nine Barrels

I was Christmas shopping with the wife when the mobile phone rang.  It was not a welcome call.
"Martin, I have booked you on a flight to Angola for the 20th."  It was my manager John.
"Oh. What?!  Steve covers Angola.  Where the hell is he?"
"Steve has just checked himself into hospital.  Back problems."
"That son of a bitch just doesn't want to go!"

Everybody knew that Steve was faking it.  Even I had heard that, during a base meeting in September, he had stated that if a job came up over the Millennium celebrations he wouldn't be available.  Pretty ballsy to say that in front of the regional manager.  Besides, the guy was in his late twenties and built like an athlete.  He was less likely to suffer with back problems that I was to overdose during a rave.

I tried to call Steve on his mobile but naturally it was turned off.

"Well, that's Christmas and the Millennium cancelled," I tell my wife.

At least the flight down to Angola was uneventful.  Stavanger to London.  London to Luanda.  On the previous occasion I had been routed via Nairobi in Kenya (for reasons I have never discovered) but fog meant I had missed the forward connection.  No such drama this time.  In fact I was even met at the airport and, once I got to the base, things had improved there as well.  While still located at the port (to this day they have not re-mettled the old dirt road leading to it), instead of the mosquito-ridden cesspool of old containers that existed previously, the new place was modern, shaded and with a tarmac yard to boot.  Very nice.
While having a hoke around the yard, I came across a set of seismic tools set up in a seven by one-and-a-half metre orange tool rack.  Noting that the cables between the tools were ten metres long, I asked somebody whether these were the tools assigned to me.  No, I was told.  Those ones were for another job out of Luanda.  Simon was doing that job.  My tools were already offshore Cabinda. Fair enough.

That afternoon, I, along with another engineer and the local manager, went to the Chevron offices in town to discuss the upcoming job.
"Ah, glad you are here Martin.  We have a question for you.  The MLR [the downhole seismic tools] tools, how are they in rugged borehole conditions?"

The thing is with any borehole seismic array is that each set of geophones have to be acoustically isolated from each other.  They are therefore not connected by solid bars but rather by long sections of cable which are usually of ten to twenty metres in length.  It is therefore impossible to push them down a hole without risking a god-awful tangle.

"Not good", I reply.  "What is the borehole deviation?"
"Fifty-five degrees."
"Hmm.  Are you intending to run casing?"
"Yes we are.  Can you shoot through casing?"
"At fifty-five degrees, it should be no problem.  A good cement job always helps but at that angle there will be enough casing touching the borehole so that there will be a bond with the formation."
"That's settled then", smiles the Chevron manager.  "We'll run the VSP once the casing is set."
"When will that be?" I ask.
"Oh, after the first week in January."

In car back to the base, one could not but reflect that that conversation could have been done over the telephone.

The following day, the 22nd of December, I flew up to Cabinda.  Expecting the base to be a dry zone, I left in the Luanda staff house a litre bottle of duty-free vanilla vodka I had impulse-purchased in Heathrow duty-free.  Upon takeoff, the airplane went out to sea and stayed there.  Angola was still in the process of moving away from a series of civil wars and it was better safe than sorry.  As we headed north, the blue South Atlantic could be seen lapped against the white beaches far below.  On approach to Cabinda the plane circled the runway before landing.  I was amazed to see people casually waling across the concrete landing strip.  By the time we landed however, the runway was clear.

The Cabinda oil base starts offshore with a series of small platforms and tanker mooring points, then at the head of shallow cliffs by the sea are a series of giant oil storage tanks.  Below the cliffs and set back from the white sandy beach, largely populated by white burrowing crabs, are a row of small yards and bases where the oil-service companies have set up.  There is a more substantial jungle-covered hillside behind these and at the top of it, is a series of chalet bungalows, very American in style.  Frankly, it was rather nice.  Food was taken in a  low multi-storey block which doubled as offices and cafeteria, which reminded me a bit of a town hall.

The emergency drill for the base was simple.  A constant siren means pack a bag and get down to the dock for evacuation by boat.  A warbling siren means dig out the heavy kevlar blanket from the wardrobe and lie underneath it: the place is under artillery attack.  I did ask whether this had ever been necessary.  Apparently in years past some Cuban troops had taken pot shots.
I never saw but I was told that Angolan troops surrounded the entire base, as did a series of minefields.  I did see the night spotter plane that constantly circled, without navigation lights, using heat-detecting technology to spot infiltration attempts.  Being of a curious nature, I asked if that had ever happened.  Apparently its major success was to spot a couple having illicit sex on the beach.

After lunch, I took the minibus down to the beach base.  It was the kind of short bus used in Britain during the late 1970s and into the 80s.  The base itself was small and the guys friendly: an American, Brit and Italian.  We had a company car too!  The most knackered VW Golf my eyes ever had the misfortune to look upon.  It still had seats, a steering wheel and four tires in each corner but most of the rest had gone, fallen either to rust or theft.  The door panels were completely empty.
The working yard was unpaved.  I found some seismic tools and decided they needed a bit of a clean up.  Naturally I didn't want to drag them through the sand after been cleaned either so it was little fun lifting a 67kg, 1.6m long tool and carrying it clear of the soft sand.

I got on very well with Jim, the American.  He was one of those larger-than-life characters, soon telling me of his teenage exploits of ordering hookers and drinks on his father's credit credit while staying at Las Vegas.
"Wait Jim," I said.  "Didn't you say that you are a Mormon?"
"Ah Martin," he replied with relish.  "That just makes the sin all the more sweeter."  Not that there was much opportunity for such sin in Cabinda.  Assuming the base was dry, I had left the duty-free bottle of vanilla vodka in the company staff house in Luanda.  That turned out to be a mistake as expat workers were allowed to buy a small quality of beer each day. A four-pack of small Heinekens does not go very far but it was better than nothing.  Meanwhile the local workers were allowed unlimited purchases, which they took fully advantage of: carrying out beer by the slab.  They would grin widely as us northerners would try to buy more than our allotted amount, only to be gleefully refused by the officious clerk.

That first day I went down to the beach and was amazed to see not only the white burrowing crabs but a family of rather scraggy-looking sea eagles: mum, dad and large fledgling.  The young bird amused itself by casually capturing and killing crabs.  Not much effort was made to eat them.  My sense of joy was added to when, as I was sitting looking at the sea-eagle's antics, a large dark back broke through the surf.  A nesting sea turtle hauled herself out of the sea and up the beach.  It was bright daylight; I thought that turtles only came out at night.  She came right towards me and only reacted with I stood up.  Hissing suddenly, it focused upon me with salt-filled eyes filled with displeasure and laboriously turned around and headed back into the sea.
I felt bad about disturbing the turtle,  Next day though I saw a local guy with a cloth bag slung around his shoulder.  He carried a long thin stick, taller than himself.  Apparently such men used the stick to probe the sand, with turtle eggs providing a welcome supplement to the family diet.
The tools went offshore on the 23rd and I followed on Christmas Eve, expecting to spend the rest of the trip there.  The helicopter itself was an ancient Bell, the kind of shopper made famous in various Vietnam war movies.   During the safety briefing, we passengers are strongly reminded again that in event of a crash landing over water, not to inflate life-vests until outside the chopper.  The week before one of these Bell's had gone down into shallow water.  A couple of Angolans on board had panicked and pulled the inflation line.  Despite the shallowness of the water, they could not be removed in time and their bodies eventually had to be retrieved by divers.

Upon arrival and much to my surprise, Derek the wireline engineer had set up the entire seismic equipment and checked it out too.  Until recently he had been a seismic engineer.  That was great.  I took the opportunity both to thank him profusely and recheck the equipment along with my recently-arrived downhole tools.  Not because I didn't trust Derek; it was just part of the job.  Having satisfied myself that all was in order, I asked what the lookahead plans were.  Open-hole logging was due to start in a few days and a full program taking at least five days.  After that the open section of the well would be lined with steel casing, the casing would be secured to the well-bore walls with cement and then it would be my turn.
Checking with both Derek and the Company Man - who is the head client representative on board, that it was okay, I booked myself a seat on the Christmas morning chopper.

As we are waiting to board, a huge American cementer struggles with his life jacket.  This guy is tall, yes, but the mass is mostly fat: he is easily over 160kg.  He sits by the starboard window and I mentally decide that if the chopper goes down, I'm out the other side.  There is no way he will be getting out and I was not eager to keep him company.  As the chopper lifts, I honestly expect it to be tilted on that side.  It didn't tilt of course but there is no way that a man like that would get medical approval to be offshore in the North Sea.

The Christmas lunch was worth the flight.  Eight huge turkeys had been laid out and the cooks stood proudly by, beaming in the praise they so well deserved.  It was rather strange eating a full Christmas meal when the temperatures are so hot outside, but the dining hall was well air conditioned.  The weight of the turkey, trimmings and pudding only made itself known once outside in the heat of a tropical early afternoon.  I walked down the hillside road to the base afterwards: a distance of just less than a mile.  With all the equipment offshore there was not so much to do and besides, it was Christmas Day.

It was a few days after Christmas when I first noticed the helicopter.  Not the usual crew change choppers but a small, bubble-domed two-man chopper; probably an early Bell, the kind thing they flew on M.A.S.H.  It was flying up and down, about a kilometre offshore.  Beneath it was suspended a boom arm which reminded me of a crop sprayer.  The next day came the smell.  A thick chemical smell that drove people indoors.  The day after that, the slick hit.

If you have every seen pictures of oil slicks hitting a beach, they are unable to do justice to reality.  The smell of oil and chemicals is horrendous.  The oil stands easily fifteen centimetres thick without support.  Everything is wiped out.  Crabs gone.  Eagles gone.  Turtles gone.  All replaced by a noisome black sludge.

Out of all the downs of working in the industry: the abuse, the sleep deprivation, being away from the family, the unsympathetic and even bullying management; none of these ever ever came close to having me quit the industry more than the experience of that oil slick wiping out a tropic beach.

What we we told?  How were the personnel instructed upon the situation?  What measures were issued to to protect us or the environment?  Nothing.  Absolutely nothing.  The air we breathed could have been a very poison but Chevron said nothing to us.  In fact, they made sure that we said nothing.  A colleague who started to talk about the slick on the telephone had the line cut.  Emails did not make it through their destination.  Chevron did their best to ensure there was a complete news blackout.

While none of the employees of service companies were told a damned thing, of course word did leak out.  I was invited down one night to an annex off the main living quarters.  It was effectively a small village where the old regular service hands lived.  They got the supplies from the main canteen and did their own cooking.  They also did their own drinking and none of this four-small -tinnie-nonsense: a bottle of vodka per man was not unusual per person each night.  I can drink but never learned to keep up with that rate.

As the vodka and tonics flowed, the chatter increased.  It started innocently enough.  Small talk.   was introduced to what I was told was the hottest chilli sauce in the world.  One drop would season a cauldron of stew.  Two drops would spice it and three would kill it.  I was advised to wash my hands simply after holding the bottle.  I did so: why the hell would I not?  By the end of the meal the talk turned to the slick.

This is a summary of the story as I was told it.  The country was undergoing a process called "Angoladisation" which involves getting rid of the the ex-pat workers and bringing in local staff instead.  Some local guy was on night shift and it was his job to monitor the levels in the oil-storage tanks which are situated at the top of the low cliffs.   At about one o'clock in the morning, an alarm tripped.  He did what any local would have down: turned off the alarm and went back to sleep.  By eight o'clock in the morning between 20,000 and 40,000 barrels of crude oil had been pumped into the sea just offshore.

Here's the rub though.  Corporate headquarters in Houston had declared that thirty nine barrels of oil had been spilt.  Only thirty nine as a forty barrel spill had to be reported to the international authorities.  Despite the local management trying to disperse the slick with what was locally available, they were overwhelmed.  Because it was only thirty nine barrels of oil however, no hope was sent from the outside.  We were on our own.

In all the years that passed since, that was the single most despicable and cynical decision by an oil company I have personally come across.

New Year's came and a group of us were on a hill top overlooking the local village.  At about half-past-midnight, a few fireworks fluttered up into the sky.  That was the Millennium celebrations done.

I must have been walking to work next day when a long convey of black limousines and SUVs rolled into the base and drove up towards the offices.  Official pennants fluttered from some of the car bonnets.  "Oh oh," I thought to myself.  "Shit is hitting fan."  It was about time.   Almost a week had gone by since the discharge had occurred.

It proved to be an eventful day.  On the way back up the hill, I was walking back up the hill when I heard a rustle from the jungle from about twenty metres to the right side.  Ahead of me and walking straight a large black-backed jackal emerged.  I judged the speed and distance and it seemed we were on a collision course.  It was also a jackal which was supposed to be timid so making a noise to draw his attention, I kept walking.  The jackal looked over, saw me and also kept walking.  This guy was not backing down.  So much for jackals being timid.  He was a big canine: almost the size of a German Shepard.   Our eyes locked and we both stopped simultaneously, no more than two metres away from each other.

There was no way I was going to turn my back on this fellow.  Still holding each other's gaze, we gradually edged around each other, me to the right and the dog to the left.  Holding my ground, I turned to follow his path into the bush.  All the time we held eye contact.  I only moved one was convinced he was gone.  I have no idea whether there was any danger and probably in the view of animal psychologists it may have been completely the wrong thing to do.  Stuck on that road alone with a quite a large wild predator, one can only do one's best.

That night down the old ex-pats' enclave there was a fair amount of racist banter going down.  Apparently the delegation had responded to Chevron's claims over thirty nine barrels with "We may be black but we are not stupid."
"Hang on a minute there," piped up an ancient Schlumberger hand, to general laughter.  Okay, that was witty but on the whole many of the white workers were just plain nasty about the Africans.  When challenged, the rationale of one individual was "You don't have to be racist because you don't have to work with the fuckers every day."  Although genuinely sickened by some of the attitudes displayed, from thereafter I kept off the subject altogether.

Finally, finally finally, it came time to get offshore again.

As the chopper lifted to about 1000 feet, the extent of the pollution could be seen.  For miles in both directions, the beaches were black.  The ocean was discoloured for a mile or so from the beach, with an obvious line marking the edge of the oil slick.  I did not see any evidence of oil booms or other forms of containment being deployed.

The job itself went well as far as the seismic was concerned but the Company Man seemed a mite ungrateful when I pointed out I thought there was no cement over the interval which the well was due to be perforated.
"What?" he almost shouted  "Schlumberger told me they did a good cement job."
"That is not what the seismic data is telling me," I replied.  "I recommend you run an SBT over the interval."   With bad grace the Company Man concurred.  The issue is that explosive charges are used to blow holes through the steel and cement so that the oil can flow into the well.  If there is space on the outside though, the oil can also migrate upwards and perhaps into formations above.  This would reduce production and in extreme cases even lead to oil seeming out on the surface.  Thus an acoustic cement bond tool can be run in order to find out the true state of the cementing job.

After the cement bond tool was run, the Company Man even had the nerve to come back to me to complain that the cement job was even worse than I had predicted.  The ingrate.

That was pretty much that.  Job done and processed.  I had a few moe days on the beach cleaning the equipment and packing it up ready for the next job.  Upon arrival though I had a panicked call from the operations manager in Luanda.

"Martin!  How long are the interconnects on your MRL?" [Translation: how long are the cables between the geophones?].
"Fifteen metres.  Why?"
"I want you to measure them."
"I know they are fifteen metres.  What is going on?"
"Measure them.  There has been another job where ten metre cables have been used and it wasn't noticed."
"Oh, was it using those tools in the yard in Luanda?  Yes I know they have ten metre cables."
"You knew?  How did you know?"
"Well," I said.  "I looked at them.  I saw they were short and there gathered they were ten metres in length.  I'm sure mine are fifteen metres but just for you I'll make sure when I'm cleaning them."

Then home.  The flight from Cabinda to Luanda was depressing.  The distance from the base to the mouth of the Congo to the south is about sixty miles.  Oil covered the beaches for every single mile.

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