With Socar being a state-owned company in a country which is about as transparent as Hillary Clinton’s past business deals, I doubt we’re ever going to find out what caused the fire on board their platform in the Caspian sea over the weekend which seems to have cost the lives of 29 people, with another 3 having been swept overboard a separate platform operated by the same company.

Which leaves the floor clear for people like me to indulge in uninformed speculation.

By my reckoning, one of two things has happened.

Theory one.  The root cause of the fire – a leaking valve, a corroded line, a damaged piece of equipment – has been known about for a while.  The practices that caused the escalation of the fire – bypassed safety systems, faulty detectors, poorly designed equipment, shoddy training, poor maintenance – has also been known about for a while.  In fact, these issues will have been identified and raised again and again by the people who work on the rig to those on the shore, both formally and informally.  How do I know this?  Because it’s the same on every site I’ve ever been on, that’s why.  The middle managers in Socar would have seen the issues raised in the offshore logs, inspection reports, safety management systems, and emails but would have ignored them safe in the knowledge that they are not directly responsible for dealing with them.  They would have had meetings, and discussions, and then more meetings followed by more discussions, but nobody would have taken ownership of the issues for the simple reason that he or she doesn’t have to: if they don’t, they won’t get admonished, let alone fired.

Now you might be forgiven, dear non-oil and gas reader, that the Maintenance Manager in an oil company is responsible for maintenance but you would be wrong: the holder of this title, like everyone else, must beg for permission to do anything from hire a painter to buy a new gasket from a series of managers one to four levels above him, providing justifications which collectively make War and Peace look like a spot of light reading for the beach.  Nine times out of ten the request will be denied, for one simple reason: it costs money.  Even if it was in the budget, it still won’t be approved because it is far easier for successive managers in the hierarchy to reject it because there are no negative consequences for doing so (other than a big fucking fire further down the line), whereas if he approves it he now must take some ownership of it and justify it to his manager.  And that will never do.  Not that any of these managers will cite costs as the grounds for rejection, oh no.  Instead, they will simply declare that they don’t have enough information, and demand “justification”.  This whole process of application and rejection will take about 6 months, and so the Maintenance Manager can happily pretend to do his job by putting in requests for approval in the full knowledge that he has plenty of time to plan his holiday, jack up some training in Singapore, and micromanage some underlings before he is expected to act on it again.  The rest of the managers can sit at their desk micromanaging their underlings by telling them to correct bullet points in PowerPoint slides safe in the knowledge that they cannot be held responsible as they simply didn’t have enough information to approve the request.

Meanwhile gas is still pissing out of that corroded line and nobody is doing anything about it.

To add insult to injury, the workers who have to eat, sleep, and shit 30-40 metres from this leaking line will be subject to regular, condescending lectures and emails from the middle and senior management about how “safety is our no.1 priority” and how “safety is everyone’s responsibility”.  The production superintendents and site supervisors will have been subject to appalling, informal pressure from their management to cut corners, put up with dangerous conditions, and adopt highly questionable practices in order to avoid career-minded individuals higher up the line potentially looking bad by asking for some money to do or buy something.  Such pressure would come with threats concealed by terms like “team player”,  “part of the solution rather than the problem”, and “being flexible”with rather unsubtle implications that the individual’s career will almost certainly suffer if they prove to be “unhelpful”.   The site guys will be further insulted when, having exhausted all other avenues to get the problem solved and one of their number interrupts a senior manager who is sanctimoniously droning on about safety to tell him they have had a leaking line on their platform for over a year, he gets told that “this is not the correct time to bring this up”, “there are ways to approach such matters” and that he “should have raised it through the correct channels”.

Now that a large fire has broken out – possibly caused by water ingress into a motor whose specification was downgraded during the design phase to cut costs causing a spark – these middle and senior managers will be frantically checking and possibly deleting their emails for any sign that they were instructed to deal with one or more of the issues that contributed to this incident and the subsequent death of almost 30 of their colleagues (albeit junior ones, so who gives a fuck?).  But the system works well to protect all but the most junior personnel, and nobody will be held accountable.  If possible, Socar will find a contractor company which can plausibly, or even not so plausibly, be blamed for some infraction or other which, if you squint and tilt your head, could possibly be the cause of a fire on a company-run facility, and shit all over them, piously lecturing the entire field of service providers in Azerbaijan of the need to demonstrate their “commitment to safety”.  And nothing whatsoever will change.

It would be comforting to pretend that such practices are confined to poorly-run state-owned oil companies, but alas such behaviour is nigh-on universal: you will find it anywhere and everywhere, without exception.

Anyway, that’s the first theory for what’s happened.

The second is that neither the workers or the management had the slightest idea of the risks present on their platform and this fire came out of a clear blue sky.  In which case: hooray for local content!

“Can it last until my next posting?”


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