Possess the Bay! Taking control of the Oil Road in Falmouth

29 Aug 2014 james

Platform was invited to present to the Geohack workshops that are part of the Fascinatecon conference in Falmouth this week. A version of the following was given via skype by James Marriott to an audience of ‘artists, gamers, historians, performance-makers, seafarers, landlubbers, the flooded and the landlocked’ in the Performance Centre, Penryn Campus, University of Falmouth.

I have visited Cornwall rarely and Falmouth only once.

The BP Tanker British Kestrel being refuelled by Lizrix in Falmouth Bay
The BP Tanker British Kestrel being refuelled by the bunker barge Lizrix in Falmouth Bay

My strongest memory is of the great space of the sea, the wide fringe of the ocean as you look out from Pendennis Point across Falmouth Bay and into the Atlantic. The horizon is dotted with oil tankers. Falmouth is presented to me, the tourist, as a benign holiday location, all Tall Ships in the docks, pirate tat in the shops. But it is also a vital part of the fossil fuel industry – a key waystation on The Oil Road.

This view of the tankers is a perfect illustration of how our lives and the places we inhabit are imprisoned by the fossil fuel industry. If I’m lucky, in a prison building I am provided with shelter, warmth and light. The systems of the gaol give me food and the routines of my day. But for all this security and comfort, I do not possess the building nor do I control the systems of the gaol. I am constantly reminded that I have no power. And this is my punishment.

It is worth understanding how we are all imprisoned by the fossil fuel industry. It provided the fuel that brought most of you to this event. The diesel that drove the buses – the U1, the 41or the 88 – that shuttle back and forth to the Penryn Campus. The diesel in the engines of the First Great Western Maritime Line trains. The petrol in the cars – perhaps filled up at the Shell Petrol Station in Tregolls Road in Truro. For those that came from further afield, the jet fuel in the aeroplanes, and the power that drives the international trains.

It reliably provides the fuel that keeps you warm in the Performance Centre on Penryn Campus. Heating from the boiler fired by gas brought from Corona Energy. It provides the light in the room, the electricity that powers the projector for this Skype and drives the servers and transmission lines of the internet. The fossil fuel industry provides all this security and comfort, but we do not possess it or control it. We seem to turn away from the idea of gaining such possession, such control, perhaps because it appears so unobtainable. The idea seems like a non-sense. Perhaps we are happy in our imprisonment? Perhaps the thought of a day of release fills us with trepidation?

You are being divided into four workshop groups. Each one encourages you to engage in the immediate landscape, to posses it in your imaginations, to make it yours in some way. As you do so I urge you to consider how this landscape too is imprisoned by the fossil fuel industry.

Out at Pendennis Point are Falmouth Docks. They function as a node in the movement of fossil fuels throughout Western Cornwall. Falmouth Oil Services Ltd that runs the terminal at the docks supplies the diesel for the Maritime Line trains, the First Group bus depot in Truro and the Shell petrol station. The terminal is in turn supplied by coastal tankers which bring in diesel, petrol and other oil products from refineries around the western hemispehere. And the terminal’s bunkering tanker, Lizrix, in turn supplies engine fuel to the crude oil tankers that moor in Falmouth Bay.

For example, Harbour Talk in the West Briton newspaper on 5th March this year reads:

The fully laden, Italian crude oil tanker Neverland arrived just before dawn to load bunkers from Falmouth’s bunkering tanker, Lizrix. Neverland had loaded Nigerian crude oil at Okwori, (a terminal in Bight of Bonny – far offshore from the Niger Delta) and left Falmouth Bay during the evening for Finnart on Loch Long, Scotland, to discharge her cargo. The crude oil is then pumped overland to the oil refinery at Grangemouth for processing.

It is not too hard to possess in our imaginations the arrival of a ship load of petrol at Falmouth Docks, the journey of a Mitchell & Webber road tanker along the A39 from Falmouth, passing just a hundred yards west of where you are sitting, hurtling north to the Shell petrol station in Truro, and a while later a Ford Fiesta pulling onto the forecourt at Tregolls Road to fill it’s tank from the pump. We can see this in our minds eye, and this is a vital step to possessing it, to controlling it. From this knowledge we can unpick the companies that lie behind the oil terminal, the road tanker, the petrol station. We can identify the people who run those companies. We can see their fundamental desire to generate profit from their activities.

But we can only stare at the silhouettes of the Very Large Crude Carriers in Falmouth Bay. It takes an effort of imagination and research just to understand where they are coming from and where they are going to. We can gain some scraps of information from the pages of the West Briton and by following ship movements on However to understand which companies own these tankers, and identify the people within those companies that drive forward the tankers in their pursuit of profit, is a huge task. Perhaps we turn away from the idea of gaining such knowledge because it seems so unobtainable, because the idea seems like a non-sense.

A--OS-IOANNIS-THEOLOGOS-AThe role of profit in the oil industry is so clearly revealed by the tankers in the Bay. When the global price of oil looks set to soon rise, there will be more tankers anchored off Falmouth as the oil traders in London, New York, Rotterdam or Geneva, wait for the value of the loads to increase. A few cents on the global price can mean that a tanker of crude can generate several million dollars more profit. When the market conditions are favourable to them, it is no wonder that the oil traders make the tankers and their crews loiter in the Bay – waiting before they head for an oil terminal.

But the tankers in the bay are also bombs. Carbon bombs. They carry within them a dense load of crude oil which when it is burnt in refineries, power stations or the engines of jets, cars and trains, releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and irreparably alters the climate of this planet. Each of those tankers is part of a conveyor belt that carries carbon from the rocks beneath the Earth into the sky above our heads, from the lithosphere into the atmosphere. There is far more carbon in each one of those tankers than is released in a year by all the citizens of Falmouth or even West Cornwall. It would certainly be better for the climate, for our planet, if the tankers in Bay never delivered their loads to be burnt in a myriad of ways. Arguably, it might even be better if they sank like the SS Torrey Canyon in March 1967, which struck Pollard’s Rock, sixty miles west of here, and spewed crude from beneath the desert of Kuwait into the raging seas, contaminating 120 miles of Cornish coast and killing 15,000 seabirds.

We know that the changing of the climate is affecting every place that we inhabit. The Performance Centre sits in the valley of the Antron Stream, which feeds the Penryn River, like her sister the Treluswell Stream. As the weather patterns shift the streams and rivers are more prone to flash flooding. On Valentines Day this year the Treluswell burst its banks and inundated homes. The sand bags were out again in Penryn.

The question is what do we do about this? We need to stop emitting carbon dioxide, to stop the transit of carbon from the lithosphere to the atmosphere. In order to do so we need to understand how this transit takes place, to posses it in our imaginations, to take control of it.

This process is already happening. The staff of Falmouth University have been working to make the Performance Centre more sustainable. Last year the energy usage of the Centre dropped 80% when the engineers implemented a Carbon Management Plan. Just the other side of the A39 main road is the Mabe Community Primary School. In February this year they announced that their solar panel roof scheme would be getting support from REG Windpower who own Roskow Barton Wind Farm up on the hill behind Penryn. And the pupils have raised further funds for their Solar School by doing a sponsored walk. Both making the energy usage in the Center more efficient and putting solar panels on the school roof are acts of imagination, acts of possession, acts of taking control of the energy system.

But as I mentioned, in the Falmouth area it is the super tankers in the Bay that have the largest impact on the climate. How then are we to take control of these? How are we to posses them? How are we to imagine this happening?

Falmouth Harbour circa 1812-14 JMW Turner (1775-1851)
Falmouth Harbour circa 1812-14 JMW Turner (1775-1851)

As a visitor from elsewhere I experience the place of Falmouth through the lens of the ways that it’s presented to me – as I say, in part Tall Ships and pirate tat. The image of Falmouth as a place of beauty, as a place to be viewed, has been slowly built up by the words and images of numerous writers and artists: from JMW Turner in the 1810’s, through the About Britain Guides produced for the Festival of Britain in 1951 and the New Shell Guides of the 1980’s, to the travelogue, Rising Ground, by Philip Marsden to be published this October. These acts of the imagination help to create the lens through which I and others read the nature of the place.

Through your work you can help change perceptions of the nature of Falmouth as a place. Your work can transport the imaginations of the listener, viewer or reader, especially by enticing them through a brush with beauty.

What happens if you use your imaginations to aid the possession of those ships that lie out in Bay?

If you ask yourselves where are those tankers coming from and going to?

Who owns them?

Who drives them forward for profit?

What are the capital structures behind them?

Who owns the Bay?

Who gives the tankers the right to moor there?

Can this right be withdrawn?

When were the citizens of Falmouth asked is they supported the use of the Bay in this way?

What would happen if Falmouth Oil Services Ltd refused to send bunker barges to refuel the tankers?

What impact would it have on the citizens of Falmouth if the Bay was no longer used as a tanker park?

Can the Bay cease to be a node in the flow of carbon, cease to be a node in the flow of capital?


With thanks to: Misha Myers, Natalia Eernstmann, John Hartley & Emma Hughes

Focus Areas