New Wikileaks cables about another major offshore gas leak in the Caspian give a rare insight into how BP attempts to control the public narratives when it hits crisis and failure. Writing a book about the company’s Caucasus pipelines, we’ve been all over the region, digging for the truth behind these events. Now the sudden release of documents allows a glimpse into the company’s preferred world of secrecy and back-room meetings.
On 17th September 2008 BP scrambled helicopters and rescue vessels to reach the Central Azeri oil rig far out in the Caspian Sea. Lying 130 kilometers offshore from Azerbaijan’s capital city Baku, the country’s largest platform was threatening to explode, with gas leaked rapidly from the seabed,. All 212 staff were rapidly evacuated and the platform was shut down, as were its sister platform, West Azeri. Oil production from the company’s Azeri-Chirag-Gunashli oil field (ACG) plummeted by 500,000 barrels per day.
As the Guardian’s publication of cables relating to the gas leak have revealed, BP was eager to prevent even its commercial partners knowing the full extent of the near disaster. The oil field is run by a consortium of ten companies, including ExxonMobil and the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan (SOCAR). With oil prices high, the shut-down meant a daily loss of $50 million. The gas leak was slashing BP’s partners’ revenue streams, so unsurprisingly Exxon et al were uneasy being kept out of the loop.
Given the importance of oil revenues to Azerbaijan’s budget, state pressure for disclosure might be expected, as Capitol Hill forced BP to provide live streamed video of the Macondo leak in May 2010. However the Wikileaks cables make clear that BP came under no such pressure in Azerbaijan, illustrating the close collusion between company and the Azeri autocracy. President Ilham Aliyev’s government recognises BP’s operations as crucial to propping up his regime, and extremely tight control of the Azeri media ensured that there was next to no coverage of BP’s crisis. The company’s position in the country is so dominant that the head of BP Azerbaijan is widely seen as the second most powerful man in the country .
When the gas leak struck threatening disaster for the Caspian Sea, both BP and the Azeri government were already uptight and nervous over their export pipelines, recently shut down by a combination of Kurdish rebel attack and the Russia-Georgia war.
Barely one month earlier in August, a vast explosion had ripped through the wooded valley near Refahiye in Turkey. Sheets of fire 80 meters high shot into the sky followed by an immense column of smoke as 30,000 barrels of oil from the Azeri fields went up in flames. The fire raged for 6 days, troops were deployed and government ministers arrived by helicopter. The ccompany’s pipeline was shut down and BP declared force majeure claiming ‘an act of terrorism’. Visiting the place of the explosion nine months later, farmers nearby were extremely reluctant to describe how their fields were covered in ash and the temporary evacuation of a village. In large part their silence came from the perception of this foreign-owned pipeline as a Turkish ‘state project’ and thus should not be criticised.
With their primary pipeline shut-down, BP routed Azeri oil through a back-up route. But on the night of 7th August 2008 a Russian fighter flew low near the village of Alkahi- Samgori in eastern Georgia, dropping bombs across a wide valley of grazing land. The Georgian government announced an attempted bombing of the pipeline, whilst BP strenuously denied this was the case. With repeated Russian bombing runs, Georgian Ministers kept making public statements to the West, hoping the US and NATO would be alarmed by the gravity of such an attack on one of Europe’s oil supply lines. But BP had no interest in a news story about the threats to its oil infrastructure; a company executive in Tbilisi told us they chose to ‘close down’ the story. Only five days after this first aerial attack, BP quietly shut down the pipeline. Eight months later, we stood in one of those craters peering out at the pipeline marker posts just yards away.
Within the month, disaster struck again, although this time it was a technical failure and BP’s own fault. But with all the turbulence over the previous months, the company wanted to keep the dampers on media coverage and avoid another story about its failures to run safe and secure operations in the Caucasus and Caspian. The Wikileaks material illustrates how one of the UK’s largest corporations chose not to share crucial information with even its closest partners, actively engaging and disengaging the media in constructing the public narrative of events.
James Marriott and Mika Minio-Paluello of PLATFORM are co-authors of the forthcoming book The Oil Road – to be published by Verso in June 2011.
Cables released by the Guardian on BP in Azerbaijan include:
Aliyev changes tune after Georgia invasion, says BP
BP says ‘rush job’ by Turks on gas pipeline is ‘not inconceivable’
BP under fire over handling of gas leak incident
BP blames gas leak on ‘bad cement job’
BP may never know cause of gas leak, US told