Wednesday, January 30, 2013

‘The Oil Road’ lecture by James Marriott and Anna Galkina at Shoreditch House, 29th January 2013

It's easy to overlook the omnipresence of oil.  We know the traffic rolling down the street is powered by it, but we often forget just how much the black goo seeps into every aspect of our lives.  We are all almost literally oil-powered. The price of the food we eat is governed in large part by the cost of the petrol used in the lorries transporting it, a large part of our economic and geopolitical power is derived from British oil companies.  Oil infrastructure is what our banks invest our paycheques in, it’s what funds the museums and art galleries that we all enjoy.  When you imagine yourself in relation to the oil economy, see yourself as a monstrous and insatiable tick, your mandibles locked into the earth's skin, greedily sucking her blood.

The two speakers tonight, James Marriott and Anna Galkina are experts in this field.  James has spent the last ten years studying the oil industry; travelling around the world to investigate and expose the impact that the oil industry has had upon both the communities it operates in and the wider political stage.  Anna has a similar set of interests, with a focus on Arctic oil exploration, speaking with indigenous people who will be enormously affected by the northern expansion of the oil industry.  Both James and Anna are work for Platform London, a research, art and education organisation that campaigns for various social causes, with their current focus being the problems of the global oil industry, and tonight, specifically, BP. 

James begins by explaining to us how oil reaches the streets of London.  He paints a vivid picture of a bus as being powered by a “rumbling war of controlled explosions”.  The bus refuels in a depot in Streatham Hill which in turn is supplied by the Coryton Refinery on the estuary of the River Thames.  This refinery gets its oil from Rotterdam, which is shipped by tanker from Ceyhan, Turkey, which is supplied by an oil pipeline stretching across the Caucasus region, ending in the Caspian Sea oil rigs off Azerbaijan.  So when we see exhaust fumes coming from the back of a Routemaster bus, what you’re looking at is the geology of Azerbaijan gently dissipating into the London atmosphere.

The 'Oil Road'
As you can imagine, getting this oil here requires a colossal amount of physical, economic and political infrastructure, and it’s the insidious effects of this that James and Anna talk about.  We’re shown a diagram explaining in relatively simple terms what BP needs to function.  This ranges from close political support from government, to economic support and investment from banks like RBS and Natwest and even to popular mood being in their favour, which is achieved through targeted PR and arts sponsorship.

This huge network is apparently run by just 30 people, all men, and while the entirety of its impact upon society may be impossible to quantify we can discuss specific examples.  One of the primary topics of the night was the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, a 1,099 mile long oil pipeline stretching from the Caspian Sea to the Turkish port of Ceyhan. The pipeline carves its way through a number of existing separatist conflicts functioning as an extension of Western power into an area traditionally considered Russia’s backyard.

One specific example that James told us about was a woman whose house stood in the path of the pipeline.  One of the European Central Bank’s prerequisites of investment was the minimisation of relocation of residents and compensation for those that did have to be moved.  For the majority of its route it bypasses most existing residences but there is the occasional house that the pipeline can't go around.  In this case, rather than pay compensation to move the family, it was decided to tunnel underneath the house.  Now the family has to live with oil rushing at 2m per second under their property, vibrations running through the building, cracks growing along the walls.  

A burned out pirate skiff.
We learn about the counter-pirate tactics of Operation Atalanta.  When tankers venture into the pirate-infested waters of the Gulf of Aden they string razor wire over their decks and summon the protection of US ‘Reaper’ drones. These pirates have held the crews of tankers hostage, and ransomed thousands of tonnes of oil back to the oil company.  So we see oil companies lobbying for development (presumably at public expense) of next-generation warships to protect their assets.  Incidentally, this operation taking place on the other side of the world is controlled from a military base near Watford, just within the M25.  The next time you’re sitting on the Metropolitan line consider that the twitchy guy next to you may have spent his day remotely killing Somalians.

Anna and James outline how the seductive qualities of oil render even the most disagreeable political regimes palatable to politicians.  The government of Azerbaijan is rightly criticised for its human rights record.  Journalists speaking ill of the government are routinely harassed, imprisoned and have acts of violence committed against them.  Authorities are accused of arbitrary arrests, indefinite detentions, severe beatings, torture, threats of rape and sinister sounding ‘disappearances’.  Unsurprisingly, Azerbaijan has high levels of corruption, with the astonishingly wealthy dictatorial President Aliyev being named the “Corrupt Person of the Year” by watchdog Transparency International.  The country is so in thrall to oil that a popular health treatment among wealthy citizens is to literally bathe in crude oil for its restorative qualities.

Bathing in crude in Baku
Azerbaijan is a repressive and corrupt country with such a poor human rights record, so why do we find it being feted by people like Mark Field, MP for the Cities of London and Westminster, who was being paid by pro-Azerbaijan lobby groups to promote the political interests of the country?  Why do we see the US State Department describing President Aliyev not as a dictator but as “the leader of a country with an emerging democracy”?  Why did Prince Andrew throw a luncheon for the man in Buckingham Palace in 2009?  It’s doubtful they’d be cosying up to these people if Azerbaijan didn’t have massive oil reserves, so the inevitable conclusion is that they’re prepared to prostitute out their dignity in exchange for some of that sweet sweet oil.

It's fascinating how much effort BP puts into PR, making sure its considered friendly and green in the public eye.  From the achingly facile rebranding from a shield to a green and yellow blossom and the laughable claim made by Sir John Browne that BP now stands for "beyond petroleum" and that "we are not an oil company".  It's such an impressive display of gumption, one straight from the Karl Rove playbook of making hay from your weaknesses, that it's worthy of a grudging respect.  

On a more concrete level, we see the BP logo propping up some of Britain's most respected arts institutions.  From the British Museum to the Royal Shakespeare Society to the National Portrait Gallery to the Royal Opera House.  They've got their oily fingers in all of our cultural pies.  The inevitable defence to this is that they've got to get their funding from somewhere, money is money, right?  The argument last night was that in days of yore you'd find exhibitions like this sponsored by British American Tobacco, a prospect considered so obviously 'wrong' now that these organisations have rules in place to specifically prevent it.  My kneejerk reaction is to disapprove of oil getting into art, but if you consider BP's money dirty it raises the obvious question: what corporate money isn't?

Oil spilling from Deepwater Horizon
All this positive PR proved to be a fragile and costly illusion, even though it seems you can indeed buy public approval (or at least tolerance) all it takes is one largest oil spill in US history and suddenly you're the epitome of evil.  Watching oil spewing endlessly into clear blue waters, choking animals of all varieties to a miserable death proved instantly more compelling than a million glossy quasi-environmentalist adverts and made the claim that "we are not an oil company" risible. BP, with the help of their impossibly slimy and incompetent exec Tony Hayward slid all too easily into the role of the bad guy, an environmental villain straight out of 'Captain Planet'.

It's tempting to view the BP executives who go yachting in Cowes while the Gulf of Mexico fills with oil, and those who cosy up to the government of Azerbaijan as utterly lacking in morals: rapacious, capitalist oil-hungry monsters.  But then, we enjoy the fruits of their labour.  Every bite of food we eat is tainted with acrid specks of oil, almost every economic action we can take will support the oil industry in some way.  We're a nation of addicts, hooked on a rapidly vanishing substance that's slowly killing us.  We were told that BP nearly collapsed as a result of Deepwater Horizon, and I asked what the consequences would be if they had.  James explained that Britain’s status as a major player in geopolitics would diminish, and ominously said that life would drastically change in the UK.

Heaven or Hell?
So does this make those of us who both criticise BP and enjoy the fruits of Western life hypocrites?  Is the standard of life we enjoy sustainable only through propping up despotic regimes and utterly destroying the environment?  Depressingly the answer is probably yes, we’re all morally compromised.   But this doesn’t mean we can’t hold the actions of the big oil companies up to scrutiny, we know they care about public opinion and we can at least try to ameliorate their worst excesses. 

It was a fascinating talk that covered a hugely complex subject in a concise and interesting way.  It's also a painful reminder of the consequences of our actions and the ways in which we contribute to world misery in the West merely by existing.  Depressingly it's difficult to imagine a world without companies like BP, at least not without a hugely painful and devastating transformation in society, a transformation that would disproportionately impact upon those already in poverty.  

Am I being too negative about this? Is there a viable way maintain our existence without the 'Carbon Web', a way to operate our society without propping up oppressive countries and destroying the environment?  If there is, (and if I've got anything wrong in this article) please let me know in the comments.

Big thanks to both James Marriott and Anna Galkina for a fascinating talk, and for Don't Panic for arranging it.

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