Saturday, August 22, 2009

Exxon-Mobil, the worst client in the world

I was in the oil exploration business for about twenty-five years, doing seismic surveys. What's that? If you have ever bought property and needed to know exactly where your boundaries were you had to hire a surveyor to find out exactly what you had. He then gave you a map of it. When an oil company bids on a "block" of land that may have some oil or gas reserves under it they hire a seismic survey company to do subsurface mapping. The company uses a system of cables, geophones, a portable computer in a truck or one ferried via helicopter. A powerful sound source is also needed, usually supplied by dynamite or vibrations made by specially designed vehicles. The vibrations bounce off the layers of rock underground and all that information is "stacked" together by very powerful computer programs to form a 3-D picture of the area of particular interest. If the map shows a geological structure that typifies those known to harbor hydrocarbons a decision to drill a very expensive well may be made. Sometimes the decision is based on whether the well may produce enough oil to pay for the investment many times over, in the discovery of an oil field. However, sometimes it may be a cynical political decision, like the ones Exxon-Mobil are famous for in the business. The 'erl bidness' is full of snakes, crocs, and other cold blooded critters but EX 'n' EM make the rest of them look like a petting zoo. All of those avuncular types purring on your TV about alternate energy projects? Don't leave your child unattended in a room with one of them. You may return to find the baby rendered for their fat.

Let me see. . .can I come up with an anecdote about a cynical political decision? Hmmm. Oh yeah, Tambopata in southeastern Peru near the Manu National Park and one of the ecologically richest, most biologically diverse places on the planet. Oil lease Block 78, 1997.

I was working for a French company, Compagnie General de Geophysique and they had just inherited a contract from Mobil for an unfinished seismic survey near the town of Puerto Mazuko in the famous Madre de Dios River country. An American company had gone broke trying to do the survey the year before because the country was so rough and they had seriously underbid the project. No one wanted the job, even CGG, so they tendered a bid of $10,000 per kilometer, and Mobil took it! It was, and still is I believe, the most money ever paid for a seismic survey. Why? Because Block 78 was right in the middle of this ecological wonderland and it had just been proposed for a national reserve, perhaps a national park. Their lease was the last one active and if they didn't find the promise of oil the place would be put off limits to mineral exploration forever. But if they, Mobil, could find even the slightest promise of a drillable structure they could turn the place into a free fire zone. However, there were a few little flies in the ointment.

I had done a couple of jobs in Ecuador and worked with two famous Huorani Indian shit disturbers named Moi and Nanto. They were famous for while when featured in a book titled 'Savages' and they were involved in the politics surrounding Texaco's reckless pollution of Ecuador's jungle. I'd seen the lagoons of black muck on a stopover of a flight to Coca so I knew it was a serious problem. Anyway, there were a bunch of Americans buzzing around Quito and Lima and they knew how to generate bad ink all over the world. They definitely had Mobil's attention, so they hired a large environmental engineering company out of Boulder, Colorado named Walsh Environmental Engineers and Scientists. Coming out of Berkeley East it's no wonder they didn't have the common sense to pick a giraffe out of a herd of sheep; I had to fight their minion on the crew from day one. He would gladly acknowledge that I was right but, good soldier that he was, and fearing for his job, he did what he was told to do. Even when he knew it endangered the health and safety of my men.

Mobil had brought in two of its own safety men, both laughable. One had spent his career doing safety at pumping stations in California. The other was a grossly obese Canadian who spent most of his time stuffing his face and bragging about his adventures in the great white north. My favorite memory of him was him lifting his leg while trying to get into a river boat, then falling on his fat butt in the mud because his center of gravity was about 18" off the ground.

I had been doing safety and security in the jungle for years and here I was working with an array of people whose least concern was the actual safety and security of the working men on the several crews scattered over some of the toughest terrain in South America. Everything was for show, nothing was meant to protect the workers. Like the soap. Christ!

Walsh, in all its effing Boulder wisdom decided that the Mobil safety men were to confiscate all the men's personal soap and shampoos, plus the dish washing detergent and scouring powder used by the cooks who cooked over open fires. What did they replace them with? Lye soap. Hard bars of lye soap that would not lather in cold water and burned the skins of the men when they tried to bathe with it. The reason for replacing the soaps and shampoo? It would pollute the pristine jungle rivers. Really? The rivers we typically worked near were probably fifty feet across, four to five feet deep, ran swiftly, and there were ten men on each crew. Not only did they need to bathe each day but bathing together in the evening is a tradition that goes back thousands and thousands of years. Interfering with that tradition is hard on morale. Burning the armpits and crotches of the men was hard on morale. Giving them diarrhea by washing the dishes with lye soap that can't be completely rinsed off the dishes and kettles is hard on morale—and hard on health. It was also hard on production but I really didn't give a s . . t about that by this time.

What was really laughable though was that these pristine waters flowed down to the main river by Puerto Mazuko which was being dredged by hordes of gold miners who used hundreds of barrels of mercury each year to process the gold. During the whole project our crews may have added a couple of gallons of soap and shampoo to those barrels of mercury, plus all the spilled diesel, oil, and other mining detritus but was that an effective argument with Walsh's rep or Mobil's 'safety' men? Nope. At one point Walsh's man had phoned Boulder and their resident genius said to tell me (so help me God) that the cosmetic products "destroyed the surface tension of the rivers".

I fought them tooth and nail and the French party manager supported me. Then he went to France on vacation and a Mexican guy I had worked with in Venezuela took his place. He had no guts and kept telling me to keep my mouth shut. I wouldn't. He fired me. I went to the dining room, leaned down, looked Tubby in the eyes and invited him outside. He almost pooped his ample panties.

I flew to Lima and wrote my report, the country manager laughed and said, "Well, Jean, I was fire from my veree firs' assignment. Go home for a week or two an' I weel fine you somesing else. Bon courage." 'Somesing else' was South Africa, and that's another story. If you don't like snakes do not go to South Africa when the Cape cobras come out of hibernation.

That's my rant for today. Thank you for your support.

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