Wednesday, 24 August 2011


When I returned to the Piper Alpha garden, all the gardeners had gone. There was peace and space and air and light in which I could now contemplate the memorial, its 168 engraved names, that dreadful night.
Then I began to remember.
Then I remembered something of that time...

...Then I remembered something of that time.

All those years ago. Another life, in another time, I worked for an engineering consultancy in the North Sea oil and gas industry. In those days following the Piper Alpha disaster, at the fag-end of the 1980's, something new was happening with young people. Out of the London suburbs and the empty warehouses of economic decline had come the acid house rave culture. And in this town too, the drugdance fever hit: The former post-punk alternative and indie club culture mixed with the nascent hip-hop upwellings and we danced and we danced and we danced. Thursday to Sunday we danced. But this life needed funding, and funding was available from the shiny engineering consultancies of the dirty oil industry. All suited up, ties tied, shoes laced, collars buttoned-down, it was quite common - more than common; it was inevitable - that you would come across fellow ravers working in drawing offices or oilco technical libraries, print rooms, server rooms and the like. Self-employed contractors we were; junior engineers, tech clerks, tracers, data input operators, dye-line printers, hot-shot document couriers in rented saloons, coining it in through the day and necking the eckies when the sun went down. A knowing nod across a drawing office on Thursday afternoon was then later a roar of recognition and a huge hug on the dancefloor on Friday night. An expensive life for young people to lead, clubbing every night - so we funded it right out of the pockets of the oil companies, for that year the offshore disaster had blown an ill-windfall bonanza for those in the right place to harvest it.

The consultancy I worked for in the year following the Piper disaster was contracted by the company Occidental itself - operators of the ill-fated platform where 168 had died on that one awful night. We were contracted to audit and remediate the working practices and equipment on their Claymore gas production platform which was similar in layout and operation to Piper. Occidental - the company had once been know affectionately as 'Oxy' - unsurprisingly had a big PR problem in this town after the disaster. Rightly or wrongly they were seen as liable, as criminal. They were seen as having caused the deaths. They became known around town as 'Poxy' or 'Poxy-metal'. At best they were known as 'Accidental'. If you say "Occidental" in a slack-jawed Texan drawl, it sounds like "Accidental", so this bit of cheek you could pull off in front of the companymen's faces while retaining plausible deniability. Not that they would ever again dare challenge a 'local', for power had shifted in the wake of the tragedy. They had a desperate need to be seen to be doing the right thing, and so, when they let their 'right thing' contracts, money was no object, and they let them locally.

Occidental was unusual in the oil industry by being about the last of the truly independent oil companies. While it's stock was traded, it remained under the majority control of one man, a second-generation Ukrainian New York immigrant called Armand Hammer. Having spent years adventuring in the newly-formed Soviet Union during the 1920's supposedly looking for the lost Romanov treasure (but truly no doubt on the payroll of the US secret service - more on this later... ), Hammer became personal friends with Lenin. Hammer used to boast that one fine day Lenin took him to a mountaintop and, gesturing to the unspoiled vastness of all the Russias below, offered him exclusive rights for mineral exploitation in the Soviet Union. Whatever the truth of this, the similarity to the bible tale of Satan tempting Jesus is both striking and telling. In any event, Hammer did not go on to exploit the geological wealth of the Soviet Union; rather, he founded a high quality pencil manufacturing company which competed indigenous Russian manufacturers out of business. Hammer's pencil company received the Huge Central Annual Stationery Order of the Soviets, worth millions of rubles in gold. Gold which he then immediately exported to the US and parleyed into control of Occidental Petroleum.  

Genuinely a remarkable and complex character, Armand Hammer, it seems, was named after the 'Arm and Hammer' symbol which was the symbol of the Socialist Labor Party of America, of which his father was a leading agitator. Indeed Hammer senior led the splinter group fraction from that party which went on to become the nugatory foundation of the Communist Party USA. We should place Hammer's Soviet links, adventures and fortune in this context and, skating all too quickly over the surface of that frozen yet deep pond, reassess our earlier assertion that Hammer's US ties were those that bound him during his early Soviet buccaneering. The irony that Armand Hammer would one day control the company (Church and Dwight) which owned the 'Arm and Hammer' domestic chemical brand - best known in this country for bicarbonate of soda toothpaste - with its trademark iconography being identical to both that of US socialism and one of the symbols of world-wide freemasonry - would surely not have been lost on such a complicated man. 

During the first flush of our town's oil-boom, Hammer would have his private airliner piloted into Dyce, where he would be met on the tarmac by chained Provost and kilted piper before being whisked to a site north of Bridge of Don. Once de-limo'ed, he would then wander around the scrubland pointing with shooting-stick at this feature and that, planning the building of his 'Caledonia' HQ. Here the office block campus with its bronze-mirrored corridors and half-carpeted internal partition walls; there the comms tower with its direct line-of sight (for microwave telemetry and control) over and across Aberdeen bay to the Piper and Claymore oilfields some 120 miles away to the north-east. Hammer was in his element. He could not know what was to happen, how badly it would end for him and his company here. 

I remember that the oil price was actually rather low at the time, during that year after the Piper disaster, but I also remember that the consultancies around town were busy-busy nonetheless. The disaster had meant that the industry urgently needed to take a painful and honest good look at itself, lest similar happen again. The oil companies were all staring into the Piper abyss and thinking: "There but for the grace of God...", so they all really needed this work done. And because the work itself was a bit of a reflexive strange loop - being largely comprised of defining what the workscope was - contracts were let on a 'cost plus' basis. Which is to say that the contract sum - the final total - was left open-ended, undefined. Rather, the consultancies would, at the end of each month, summarise their costs - mostly labour, but also stationery (heh), mileage, subsistence and whateverelse you thought you could get away with - add on a percentage (usually 20%), add on VAT (at the time, 12.5%) and invoice the oilco, who would then pay up the following month. I never once remember an invoice being questioned. The temptation to pad these invoices with extra hours or miles or print runs or whatever, was, of course, overwhelming. And as the consultancy I worked for was contracted by Occidental, it became almost a duty for us to give in to this temptation; to chisel and chisel and chisel some more out of the 'Accidental' killers. At all levels, from board members to tea-ladies we plundered the hapless outsiders. With glee we took our pencil-necked revenge-by-proxy through our timesheets and expense claims, our invoices and our indents. 

The consultancy grew quickly as we took on more and more contractors, more and more bodies in the drawing offices and engineers' ateliers to subcontract out to the Oxy job cost-plus money machine. Day-rates ballooned and word got round. Draughtsmen and engineers who had until earlier that year been making an OK-enough and secure salary in the Donside papermills, Belfast shipyards, Sellafield nuke plants, came to work for us on day-rate. A night shift was instituted. We paid them handsomely and all from Armand Hammer's fortune. There was plenty work to go round on the Oxy job. We were spreading the wealth and a party atmosphere pervaded our consultancy. The company tripled in size over about six months. A move first to overflow portacabin accommodation on the Altens Industrial Estate site, then overflowed to hotel suites at the four-star Skean Dhu, then settling to sexy high tech offices in the city centre.

As the company grew, it also grew its own culture and group of young engineers and clerks within the consultancy set up a satirical review newsletter which very quickly grew beyond its initial aims. At times very close to the knuckle, this 'Private Eye for the North Sea' circulated well beyond our own company, becoming a clearinghouse for anonymous whistleblowing; exposing unsafe practices offshore and mercilessly lampooning individuals and oil companies involved in industrial accidents, oilspills, corruption, anti-union activity and the like and the inevitable subsequent coverups. Produced by individuals who nurtured their plausible deniability carefully, overnight the newsletter just appeared on your desk photocopied and stapled (sometimes comb-bound? With an acetate cover? Maybe.) This was before the advent of desktop email so this newsletter was a real physical item, with actual costs involved in its production. Who was to pay these costs?

At board level an inquiry was convened... It is interesting to note that the content of the newsletter was not questioned - demonstrating tacit approval for whistleblowing in the wake of serious loss of life; good. But pencil-necked businessmen being pencil-necked businessmen, the money question had to be asked: The chairman puffed his panatella and pushed the satirical-serious pages away from him across the dark teak. He placed the cigar in the brass ashtray to his left and sipped a little malt from the lead-crystal tumbler in front of him. An intake of breath through teeth. Leaning over and back, he whispered to the minute-secretary to put down her pencil and pad. Then, elbows on the high-lustre polished table, he steepled his fingers below his chin and raised his bushy eyebrows high into his balded brow: 
"Ahem, very good. But... er, who's paying for the printing?"
His right-hand man, the Managing Director - his old university friend with whom together they had set up partnership and formed the company way way back in the heady new days of Forties and Brent - provided the answer. For, of course, to ask the question - that day in 1989 in that post-Piper context - to ask the question was to answer it:
"Who's paying? Why - Oxy, of course!"


With respect. 
This post is dedicated to the dead, in the 
hope that such a workplace tragedy can never happen again.


No comments: