Pass me a white feather

Recently I watched one of Hollywood’s latest outputs, a film called The East which concerns a blonde chick who infiltrates some anarchist-environmentalist group bent on holding unethical corporations to account.  The premise was pretty lame to begin with: apparently it’s based on the experiences of the director and lead actress from when they joined an anarchist collective, whatever one of those is.  Why they thought this would be a good basis for a film I don’t know, but I found it both dull and predictable.

Naturally, one of the targets of the anarchists in the film was an oil company, whose depiction was about as realistic as the oil companies in Syriana.  The oil company seemed to be operating some sort of petrochemical plant onshore USA, and children (but no adults, it seems) were dying of arsenic poisoning from polluted water.  An executive of the oil company claimed independent analyses had all declared the water clean; where the EPA was in all of this wasn’t mentioned, but you’d have thought they’d have at least shown an interest in dead children.  The subtext was that the government was quite happy for this oil company to pollute the water and kill children.  “If only,” say the guys battling to get the Keystone XL pipeline approved.  Anyway, these anarchists kidnap the executive of the oil company and chuck her in a lake beside the petrochemical plant, and she shits herself because at exactly 3am a load of effluent spews forth from an 8″ pipe, presumably containing arsenic.  The explanantion given is that this is a by-product of something or other and “the people want cheap power”.  So we have an oil company producing “power”, which I take to mean electricity, in a petrochemical plant with an arsenic by-product which they don’t want to treat, and so dump it in a nearby lake.  In the USA.

Okay, so we’re in Captain America territory for believability, but that’s not my point.  What I think Hollywood – or rather, a decent scriptwriter or author – is missing is that you could write a reasonably compelling drama about an oil company polluting an area and/or killing people without having to draw cartoon villains.  I suppose realism isn’t important when your target audience will believe pretty much anything (the reaction to Syriana proved that), but if somebody wanted to write a story whose accuracy would perhaps give it greater longevity if not immediate box-office success, there is enough material out there.

The thing is, oil companies do pollute and they do kill people.  Just the mechanism for doing so is not how it is portrayed in Hollywood, or commonly believed. Trust me, there is no western oil company executive anywhere who says to his board, or thinks to himself, “Fuck the environment, and fuck the safety and wellbeing of our employees and the citizens outside the fence.”  That just doesn’t happen.

What does happen is a mixture of incompetence, managerial cowardice, pressure to produce, pressure to cut costs, and forced compliance with corrupted local content laws results in fatalities, injuries, and spills which should never have happened.  “Every accident is avoidable” is a common rallying cry in oil industry HSE departments, which is true but the phrase is misused to imply that accidents will be avoided even if they continue working as they are.  “Accidents are inevitable” would be a more accurate slogan, given their actual working practices.

I suppose somebody could make a film about a man being killed in an accident on an oilfield caused by stupid and dangerous work practices, but he wouldn’t be employing much imagination in doing so.  Lots of jobs are dangerous, and people die doing them every day.  But a clever writer might want to weave a tale of a worker’s death being caused by the type of cowardly, bureaucratic, and utterly callous decisions made on a daily basis by managers in oil companies whose names you would certainly have seen on forecourts.

One such example sticks in my mind.  A Thai engineer was working on a site in Africa as a contract worker for a major oil company.  As with all contract workers (as opposed to staff employees), his actual employer was a manpower agency and he was seconded into the oil company.  In order to comply with local content legislation, the manpower agency was local; it was simply not permitted to hire people through foreign agencies.  In keeping with the characteristics of other local companies in this particular country, this agency was run by people (locals) who were utterly dishonest, and forever lying and cheating in their dealings between the oil company and the employees in order to maximise profit for the owners.  In their contract with the agencies, the oil company insisted that they provide in-country medical assistance for each employee, including medical evacuation.  In such a backward and dangerous country this was essential, and no employee would come without such cover.

Unfortunately, the oil company used competitive bidding to try to minimise the agencies’ margins, forcing them to cut corners.  The oil company called it “cost savings”.  One of the ways in which they cut corners was to not purchase the medical cover – a practice that still goes on – and that is what this agency did.  The feckless locals who owned and ran the outfit didn’t worry that some Thai was sent to site under the impression he had medical evacuation cover, but in fact had none.  Although strictly in breach of the terms of the contract, the oil company – itself staffed mainly by feckless locals and incompetent expats – had little incentive, let alone the organisational competence, to carry out audits to ensure the agencies were providing all the services they were obliged to.  Also, as I listed at No. 5 in this post, the oil company had no choice but to continue using nonperforming and dishonest suppliers due to local content legislation.  But the situation at the time was that the oil company’s management were in full knowledge of the shortcomings of their agencies, but each individual stated – correctly, but irrelevantly – that the provision of medical cover of contract employees was the responsibility of the employing agency.  That the oil company might have a duty of care to ensure the employees working on their sites were adequately covered and not lied to was not an idea they chose not to entertain. Being staff employees, and hence not exposed themselves, they simply didn’t give a shit.

Then one day the unfortunate Thai was working on a site operated by the oil company when he collapsed.  As it was discovered later, he had had a brain aneurysm.  He was taken to the facility medical bay where the doctor ordered his immediate evacuation to the nearby capital city, which is served by an international airport.  He arrived at the designated (private) clinic in the capital whereupon an almighty row broke out because the agency did not have an agreement in place with the clinic, despite this being a requirement of the contract between the agency and oil company.  The sick man, by now in a coma, was nevertheless admitted to the clinic and given treatment but it was clear he needed to be evacuated to Europe immediately.  The clinic normally would arrange the evacuation, but without the agreement in place they refused: these things cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, which is why the evacuation allowance on most travel insurance policies is substantial.

The agency therefore set about trying to get some agreement in place with the clinic, but like everything else in Africa this was neither fast nor straightforward.  As such, a full day had passed with the man left in the clinic as the two parties squabbled.  Up until this point, the position of the oil company was one of aloof indifference.  As it happened, another Thai was working in the oil company offices in the capital at the time and, as there were only two Thais in the subsidiary, they were pretty close friends.  This chap was boiling with rage at the non-evacuation of his friend and so went to see the project director who was ultimately in charge of both the works on the site and the contract with the agency.  He explained the urgent need to get his friend evacuated immediately and the incompetence of the agency to handle it, and begged him to allow the oil company to use its own agreement with the clinic (that it uses for its own personnel) to evacuate the man, and reclaim the costs later.  The project director replied, with a bureaucratic cuntishness that would have made a Soviet commissar proud, that it was “not the company’s responsibility”.

The sick man was eventually evacuated to Europe after 4 days in the clinic, but by the time he arrived he was brain-dead.  Nobody knows whether a speedy evacuation would have saved his life, but the fact that he was never even given a chance made everyone pretty sick.

Actually no, it didn’t.  The guy was Thai, so few people gave a fuck.  Had he been a European the whole office would have gone apeshit, but a Thai?  Who cares?  (I was once on a site when a Filipino got killed; you could almost hear the relief when the management were told it wasn’t a Western expat.  The result was a few shrugged shoulders.)

What I found particularly vile about the incident was that the oil company management knew full well that the agencies were not fulfilling their obligations, but chose to do nothing about it.  And the employee certainly wasn’t told he wasn’t covered and given the option of going home.  In my mind, the duty of care towards the worker therefore passes to the oil company in the event of such an emergency.  The behaviour of the management in presiding over an organisation that firstly fails to ensure the workers are adequately covered, and then ducking the responsibility when an emergency arises, is not much different from deliberately pouring arsenic into a pond at 3am.  The behaviour can be explained using two words.  The polite one is cowardice, but I prefer cuntishness.

Sadly, this sort of behaviour is commonplace in today’s oil industry, so much so that it can almost be considered standard practice.  The cowardice of individuals protecting their own arses and careers, regardless of the human cost or even common decency, is a giant cancer in the industry and probably one of the biggest contributing factors to fatalities, injuries, and spills globally.  I think I could, just about, stomach a close friend or relative being killed on a drill floor during a dangerous operation.  But to lose somebody because some cunt in an office doesn’t want to shoulder the bureaucratic responsibility his colossal salary is supposed to pay for?  That would have me reaching for a sniper rifle.

There’s a film in there, somewhere.

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