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Behind the storm

At 17.40 local time on 4 December, a storm ripped through Platform 10 of the Guneshli oil and gas field, owned by the Azeri state oil company, SOCAR. What happened next is not entirely known.

On the night of 3 December, the wind across the western Caspian rose to hurricane levels. Over 30km off the Absheron Peninsula that juts out into the sea just north of Azerbaijan’s capital Baku, the waves built to eight metres high. The noise on all seven platforms of the BP-operated Azeri-Chirag-Guneshli (ACG) oil field was infernal. The crews that live and work in these small towns on giant steel legs took shelter in their accommodation blocks, and were on a high state of alert.

As with hurricanes around the oil installations in the Gulf of Mexico or the wild North Sea, there is little that workers can do in such conditions. Helicopters can barely operate and workboats have to stand off from the platforms while everyone waits for the howling to die down.

Just north west of the ACG field lies the Guneshli oil and gas field, where the platforms stand in shallower waters. Largely constructed in the Soviet period, these rigs are wholly owned by the The State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic (SOCAR).

As legal and capital entities, these platforms are separate from the ACG field next door, but operationally and psychologically they are connected: the platforms are viewable from each other; they all share the same state rescue services; they are all required to abide by the same regulations; and the fate of men on one platform impacts on those working on others. They all share the same life, working shifts around the clock, out of sight of land, battered by the winter sea and the blistering heat of summer.

4 December  

The storm did not subside but built through the morning and afternoon of Friday 4 December, the wind roaring at 144km per hour. At 17.40 local time, wind broke a gas pipe on Platform 10 on the Guneshli field. The gas ignited an explosion that ripped though the platform. There were 62 or 63 crew members on board.

What followed is hard to decipher: many figures given in the press reports contradict each other. The structure was engulfed in flames. Attempting to shelter themselves from the inferno, oil workers climbed into two of the platform’s lifeboats. They winched them down to below the structure, where they dangled 10 metres above the raging sea. A rescue boat tried to come alongside, but they could not assist. After nearly five hours during which workers were crammed into a lifeboat hanging from the underside of the burning rig, one of the lifeboats broke loose and plunged into the waves. Three men were saved but one man was dragged from the water already drowned.

Meanwhile it seems that a helicopter tried to approach six times and eventually managed to winch 3 men from the platform and 24 men from a second lifeboat. All of these men were flown to hospital - one of them was immediately taken into the acute burns unit. Chaos reigned. With 31 rescued and one dead, 30 or 31 men remained missing, possibly dead. About half the crew of Platform 10 might have been killed.

At 5:40 pm on Friday, a heavy storm and waves of more than eight meters swept through an underwater gas pipeline on the Guneshli 10 oil platform. (c) Meydan TVI try to think of those men in those moments. The terror. The screaming wind, the force of the waves crashing into the platform’s legs, the unbearable heat of the gas flames, the smell of burning. And then I think of the men on the other platforms in the Guneshli field and those on the ACG field to the south—watching the rig, a ball of flame in the distance, a burning star in the storm, unable to assist, sick with anxiety. The sound of rotor blades as the helicopters ferried back and forth over the horizon of Baku Bay. And the staff in the BP offices in Baku. And the men in the Friday evening bars in the city. And the women and the families at home. News must have travelled fast.

The explosion took place at 13.40 GMT. At exactly the same time, the share price of BP Plc on the London Stock Exchange took a sharp fall. It tumbled from 373.50p to 358.75p in the space of the following 90 minutes—the sharpest fall for four months. It continued to slide until 16.00 on Monday 7 December. It is possible that this was coincidental. Friday 4 December was the day that OPEC might have indicated a desire to raise the price of oil, but failed to do so.

But the exactness of the timing leads to the suspicion that traders in the market, like many analysts around the world, took the news of ’32 possible dead at Guneshli oil platform explosion’ to mean BP’s Deepwater Guneshli field. An explosion of this scale on the BP platform would have had a disastrous impact on the share price of the company, for it would have created a terrifying echo of the Deepwater Horizon explosion in April 2010, which destroyed 40 per cent of the company’s capital value in the subsequent eight weeks.

Scraps of news

Beyond the newswires that feed the traders, the first that the rest of the world heard about this tragedy was via an Agence France Presse report at six o’clock on the following evening, which explained that 29 people had been rescued, but SOCAR was ‘declining to detail how many people [were] still stranded on the platform’.

A full 28 hours after the explosion, the barest of information was being released by the Azeri authorities. Only on 8 December, four days after the explosion, did SOCAR release an official statement on its website. It gave the death toll, with 32 evacuated, which meant 29 were missing. On the same day President Aliyev released a statement in which he declared: ‘Despite bad weather conditions, 32 people could be saved. According to preliminary information, one person died. At this time, rescue operations continue.’

The only public voice in Azerbaijan reported in the international media commenting on the disaster was Mirvari Gahramanli, head of Azeri Oil Workers Rights and Protection Committee. Reuters quoted her as saying on Saturday that 32 workers had died. As the platform was still burning and the storm still raged, the chances of finding the missing alive was slim. Meanwhile BP was ‘not available for comment’ on Saturday 5 December, and a couple of days later issued a simple statement that ‘there was no impact on operations at its offshore Azeri Caspian oil platforms’.

The smattering of further coverage between 6 and 11 December recycled the same scraps of news that had been provided by the SOCAR press office. As time wore on, the chances of finding the missing alive dwindled. What heartache there must have been for so many in Baku. It looks, at the time of writing, that 30 men died on Platform 10. This makes it the second worst death toll on any oil installation in the world in the recent past—second only to the Piper Alpha explosion in July 1988 in the UK sector of the North Sea when 167 men were killed.

The contrast to the response to the Deepwater Horizon disaster in April 2010 is illuminating. The number of men killed in that explosion was a third of those who seem to have died on Platform 10. But unlike the scraps of information that have floated into the global media about the Guneshli explosion, the world’s TV channels were wall-to-wall with reports within hours of the Deepwater disaster—and this was before the scale of the subsequent oil slick was apparent.

In the shadows

The reasons for this contrast are obvious: the world’s media pays scant attention to Azerbaijan, particularly it’s oil and gas industry. This is exactly as the foreign corporations operating in Azerbaijan would wish it. Less media attention means less scrutiny. It was the feeding frenzy of TV channels over Deepwater that drove US politicians to play hard ball with BP, and it was this in turn that drove the panic on Wall Street which smashed the corporation’s share price.

The world’s media pays scant attention to Azerbaijan, particularly it’s oil and gas industry. This is exactly as the foreign corporations operating in Azerbaijan would wish it.

Around the world, corporations always tightly control access to offshore oil fields. But in the Gulf of Mexico you can hire a helicopter and patrol the seas, you can attend a press conference and demand responses from an oil executive, you can cover the public demonstrating outside government buildings, you can largely publish what you like—in the papers and online.

No such freedoms exist in Azerbaijan. Dozens of journalists have been imprisoned, driven into exile or even killed on the grounds that they have had the temerity to ask questions.

What really happened on the afternoon of Friday 4 December? It’s impossible for us to look at this question in the depth that it requires. We at Platform are no longer allowed to enter the country. The eyes that would have peered into this tragedy, like those of investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, are incarcerated in the walls of Kurdexani Prison. She is rendered blind and so are we. 

On 17 September 2008, there was a gas leak on one of the platforms on the ACG field, all 210 personnel were evacuated, and the installation was shut down. A disaster was narrowly averted. However, there was next to no news coverage of the crisis. Two years later, a US internal cable published through WikiLeaks revealed BP’s project partners were upset by how the company ‘sought to limit information flow about this event’

The knock-on from Platform 10

It appears that when the markets understood that Platform 10 was not owned by BP, they breathed a sigh of relief. This was not a repeat of Deepwater Horizon, and the BP press office worked hard to assure journalists of this. But it is unlikely that this disaster will leave BP unscathed. Perhaps it will lead to changes in Azeri operating regulations?

It may have an impact on the Aliyev government and in turn upon the largest foreign investor in Azerbaijan, BP. Large industrial disasters have a tendency to cast a long shadow on the polity of the states in which they happen. The Deepwater Horizon disaster had an impact on the regulatory framework in the US as well as upon public perceptions of the oil industry—this undoubtedly made it more difficult for Shell to drill in the US Arctic. The Piper Alpha disaster sparked the birth of OILC, the first radical trade union in the UK sector, and drove the Cullen Inquiry to alter the working conditions in the North Sea. It has long been understood that the Chernobyl nuclear accident in Soviet Ukraine played a crucial role in the demise of the USSR.

So how will Platform 10 impact the Aliyev regime? At the very least it is reported that 60 per cent of SOCAR’s crude supply has been shut down; and this coming at a time when the oil price is at a historic low and the income from the oil fields to the Azeri government coffers looks ever more perilous. Falling state revenues will make the government ever more anxious. If the state fails to respond adequately to the crisis and the deaths, will there be a public outcry?

Because opposition voices and journalists have all been imprisoned, it will be hard for the rest of the world to see what is happening in the fog of Baku. But perhaps the bright fire of Platform 10 will illuminate the darkness of Azerbaijan.

About the author

James Marriott is a writer, artist, activist and naturalist. He works as part of Platform, which has brought together artists and activists since 1983 to create projects and campaigns that help the struggle for ecological and social justice.


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