Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Monday, 23 December 2013


When I am older I will cast aside this crusty persona and the new me will emerge, the suave super-spy who lives a life of car chases, fine wine, fast women and opera. Okay, I may pass on the killing people bit and my wife might object to the fast women, I'm up for everything else, including the opera.

Opera. Yes. That's a bit of a funny one, isn't it?

I mean, there are only about twenty operas that are regularly performed. Imagine if rock music was like that. What if there were just 20 rock albums that were regarded as classics and anything less famous than Black Sabbath's Paranoid was completely ignored?

There's also almost no hierarchy in opera. Rock fans can pay £300 to see the Rolling Stones (if they're mad), a more reasonable amount for a band that didn't sell out before the sixties ended, or watch a local band doing cover versions down the pub for nought. But for opera lovers there isn't much between your local am-dram doing Gilbert & Sullivan and flying to Milan to see Turandot. We're lucky here in Derbyshire we have Buxton Opera House entertaining touring companies, but that's fairly rare.

That's why it was absolutely fantastic on Saturday night to go to Glossopera's inaugural concert at the Partington Theatre. The Partington is one of Glossop's wonderful little secrets, a genuine small theatre with an intimate atmosphere, and to see professional opera stars perform there is an almost unique experience. It's a real pity this is so, because although my tastes in music are fairly broad, there really is nothing that sends shivers down your spine in quite the same way as opera when it's done properly.

As I haven't yet dedicated myself to a study of the finer points of opera I can't attempt a critical exploration of the performance, save to say it sounded amazing.

I saw Katherine Jenkins in Buxton before she was megafamous (she was the support act!) and whilst her version of Carmen's Habanera was beautifully sung, you could tell she was a nice girl from the Valleys and not a seductive vamp. Charlotte Stephenson though certainly seemed to play the part, but then she has played Carmen in a real opera, something Ms Jenkins has never done.

Charlotte Stephenson
The rest of the performers were top notch too. Tenor Alexander Anderson-Hall opened the show with Brindisi from La Traviata, which has been the end of lesser performers. Baritone Mark Saberton made a decent Toreador and a first rate Don Giovanni, whilst the sopranos Catriona Clark and organiser Claire Surman worked their way through a battery of classic opera numbers.

However, after Carmen, the highlight for me was the duets and ensemble pieces (if that's the word, I haven't learnt operaspeak yet); the one from The Pearl Fishers (question for a real opera buffs: name another song from the opera), the British Airways ad. one, the batty Mozart one from The Magic Flute and then when the encore was Time To Say Goodbye it was shivers down the spine time again.

And bets of all it was all performed live and right in front of you. Very intimate in the case of Habanera. It's one thing to see Carmen with the cream of immediate post-Communist Budapest society at the Hungarian State Opera as I did 20 years ago, but it's quite another to have her within arms reach and giving you a rose afterwards. (Had a spot of bother explaining that to my wife, I don't usually come home from a night out with flora).

So a wonderful and unique event. And the best bit? Well you can probably guess!.

So hopefully there'll be Glossopera II, or whatever they call it, next year. But could anything beat Habanera? Well, Casta Diva might.

Meanwhile, it's Breton folk dancing tonight.

Monday, 16 December 2013

Albion Fracked?

Convoy on Barton Moss Road 13/12/13
There’s a war going on in Albion. You may not have noticed it yet, but it might be coming your way soon. The enemy is fracking, an unconventional fossil fuel bad for the planet as a whole and whichever corner of it they drilling in particular.

The government is broadly in favour, the media broadly ignorant and the City cautiously supportive. But a grass roots movement of eco-warriors and concerned locals threatens to upset their plans.

Camps are springing up across the land. It started in Lancashire in May, with 300 people at Camp Frack. Sussex then did it in the balmy days of July. Damh the Bard was there, and so where thousands of others, having fun in the sun. But us hard northern types in Greater Manchester doing it in December.

As I write their camp in Barton Moss is awaiting the arrival of the drilling rig. They are currently sorted for baked beans and pasta sauce but running low on fresh coffee and beer. So, situation critical.

It’s Oil Jim, But Not As We Know It

Shale gas, the stuff they’re looking for in Lancashire; shale oil, the stuff they were trying to get at
Boris and I at Barton Moss
Balcombe; and coal seam gas, which is what they currently claim to be looking for in Manchester, all come under the category of ‘unconventional oil’.

The processes are slightly different, but basically it’s about getting oil that is not stored in porous rock. Instead of just sticking in a pipe and sucking it out, fracking involves pumping water and chemicals into the ground to force the rock apart to free the hydrocarbons trapped within.

There is air pollution, noise, gas flaring and lots of lorries. It requires large amounts of water being brought in and large amounts of waste being taken out. Under the ground bore holes can crack and previously impermeable rock can shatter. Methane can end up where it’s not wanted; in the atmosphere, in the ground water and in people.

The Rebel Alliance

Well there had to be drummers
People opposed to fracking generally get there from two different directions.

For environmentalists fracking is another unwanted fossil fuel. Possibly it is one of the worst, as leakage of the potent greenhouse gas methane from the fracking sites may mean it causes more Climate Change than coal.

For people with a fracking well in their back garden, the concerns are the noise, air pollution, vehicle traffic and the possibility of methane contamination of the water table.

At times it can seem like the people who go round supporting wind turbines and those who oppose them have got together and decided the one thing they both don’t like is fracking. Best of all it’s a grass roots movement. Some big NGOs have almost given up, as everything they would have wanted to do has already been done by self organising local groups.

That makes a powerful movement, and one that is global. In Australia fracking in Queensland was resisted so strongly the other states either banned it outright or inflicted a punitive regulatory regime. In France and Bulgaria campaigns have led to indefinite bans.

But the real question is, can we win here?

I think the answer is a great big yes. 

Here’s why.

Jittery Markets

On the fence over fracking
People don't frack for the fun of it. This is about making money.

The thing to remember is these aren't big companies by the standards we're used to. They hope to get big, but they're not there yet. Centrica's £60 million deal with John Browne’s Cuadrill  would barely have been enough to pay the board its bonus in the days he was head of BP.

They are hoping to make megabucks, but first they need other people's money.

Industry consultants KPMG, who don’t usually see eye-to-eye with environmentalists, are sceptical. They talk about "tremendous reputational and regulatory hurdles", "high costs", "financial risk", and "extended development periods". This is all industry code for “careful you don’t lose your shirt”.

Governments, as we know to our cost, can be incredibly pig headed and can stick with bad decisions forever rather than appear weak. The City though can change its mind in an instant. It wasn't John Major's government that gave in to Greenpeace over the Brent Spar - they were getting ready to send in the SBS - but Shell which threw in the towel.

Worried MPs

The risk management company Control Risks wrote a report on fracking in which they note "activist groups are well-organised (I guess they’ve never been to one of our meetings) and actively network internationally” (they must have heard of Boris) and a government which is "is cautious or divided in its approach towards unconventional gas development".

Put together they worry:
Convoy enters Igas site on Barton Moss 13/12/13
"Protest activity in the UK can be expected to persist as new sites are targeted for exploration, although the composition of issues and concerns will vary by locality. While these demonstrations may only be marginally successful at physically disrupting drilling – Cuadrilla was delayed by just a week at Balcombe – their real impact will be felt in the politics of shale. Tory backbenchers viewing fracking as an electoral liability is a greater success for the anti-fracking movement than blockading a project site."

So they see us pesky protesters as a big threat and the Countryside Alliance supporting Conservative MPs of the Stockbroker belt as the weakest link.

Happy Campers

Guinevere Rose Ditchburn
So here's the challenge for us. Taking a group of rowdy, anti-capitalist anarchists, design a campaign to appeal to both a shrewd stockbroker and a Tory backwoodsman.

Should be easy.

However, in case you’re stuck for ideas, Control Risks has some for you.
Direct action is intended to draw media attention to the anti-fracking movement, motivate the anti-fracking opposition, and physically disrupt operations. Project site blockades, in particular, have emerged as a favoured low-cost, high-impact tactic, especially in the UK.

So there you go.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Top Five Cinema Sci-Fi Heroines

Oops, nearly typed 'babes' there not heroines.

But in my defence it can be hard to tell the two apart in a genre devised for, and by, geeky males. Even Princess Leia, who started off less vacuous and more clothed than the average, ended up in the slave girl costume (cue gratuitous picture of Carrie Fisher).

However I've tried hard to pick babes women, who were a bit more than decorative monster bait.

Sandra Bullock doesn't make the list as I haven't seen Gravity yet, and I'm only counting actual movies, not TV crossovers, so there's no Wilma Dearing (Buck Rogers), Deana Troy (Star Trek: The Next Generation) or Dana Scully (X Files).

So here we are, in chronological order, as I can't possibly rank them any other way, my top five sci-fi babes heroines.

Barbarella (Jane Fonda) in Barbarella (1968)


How do you judge Barbarella? A bit of sixties fluff? Sexist soft porn? Or a cult classic?

Staring the third Mrs Roger Vadim, Jane Fonda, it looked utterly bizarre and the plot is totally bonkers.

Having an actress strip off during the opening credits, and then proceed to sleep with every man she meets, doesn't perhaps sound the most liberating plot ever. But the world was still a pretty boring and straight place in 1968, and along with films like Blowup (1966) this was the sexual revolution as it happened.

Miss Fonda, of course, was also Hanoi Jane, smooching around North Vietnam even as the US Air Force wasted the Mekong Delta, so there is a bit of authentic radicalism here too.

Plus, after you've seen it, you'll never think of the band Duran Duran in the same way again.

Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in Alien Quadrillogy (1979-1997)

Sigourney Weaver became the iconic post-feminist woman when she appeared in Aliens with a blaster in one hand and a child the other.

She had also been a fairly sassy space fairer in the original film, and had held things together as the male members of the cast were devoured, but it was in the second film that she really kicked ass.

Aliens was the film that set the standard for sci-fi actioners. After that all future guns had to go chunk-chunk before they fired, and sci-fi heroines couldn't just scream and pout any more.

Rachael (Sean Young) in Blade Runner (1982)

So what would you make of Rachael for a girlfriend?

Attractive, well dressed, susceptible to the charms of an older man and after four years she 'retires' and you're single again. Sounds good.

But she isn't just eye candy. What sets Rachael apart from the others on this list is that her struggle is an internal one, as she has to work out who she is, which of her memories are real and come to terms with her, possibly very short, lifespan.

To be honest, you wouldn't really expect Sean Young to pull a performance like that off, but I think she does just fine, as well as looking incredibly stylish.

The only question is, what does she see in Harrison Ford's rather wooden Decard? Rutger Hauer's Batty is the fella she should have ended up with.

Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) in Terminator 1(1984) and 2 (1991)

The Terminator franchise has been around long enough to become both familiar and contemptible, so I have to think back to the days when I wasn't old enough to officially watch films like this, to remind myself how good the first two films were.

Casting is everything in cinema, and Arnold Schwarzenegger playing a robot was classic casting.

But Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor was pretty inspired too. The mum who becomes a feral street fighter when her son is threatened is a bit of a cliche, but she manages to pull it off. In the second film she also has to wrestle with her feelings towards the titular cyborg, an emotionless killing machine who her son never-the-less regards as a father.

Well, I guess a few other mums have had to wrestle with that one too.

Dr Elleanor "Sparks" Arroway (Jodie Foster) in Contact (1997)

I guess you can't really call a multiple Oscar winner 'underrated'. However I really think Jodie Foster should be considered one of the great actors of our time, not just a great actress. Her Agent Starling in Silence of the Lambs was a far, far more subtle bit of acting than Anthony Hopkins' scenery chewing performance as Hannibal Lector, but was mostly overlooked.

Her Dr Arroway is a serious scientist on a very serious quest. Women blasting aliens to pieces were old hat by 1997, but women scientists were rather rarer on screen. 

They fiddled around with Carl Sagan's plot a bit, toning down the atheism and suggesting religion isn't all bad, but they also added twist that at the end, and Arroway ends up believes in aliens thanks to something close to Divine Revelation, which is a nice joke on rationalists like Sagan.

So that's my list; a sex kitten, a pair of heavily armed maternal types, some Art Deco totty and a brilliant scientist. So what does that say about me?

Don't answer.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

The North's Not For Fracking

The Northern Gas Gala got going today.

Those southern softies did it in the July sunshine, but hard northern types do it in the November rain.

Actually there were a considerable number of southern types there today, many of them having camped out by the side of Moss Lane for a couple of weeks in a camp that was totally sorted for baked beans and pasta sauce, but rather lacking in beer and coffee. Not to mention toilet facilities.

The famous Manchester rain was fortunately absent as a motley gang of forty odd souls, no more than a quarter of them journalists, waited for something to actually happen. Judging by the number of cars and vans honking and waving as they drove past on Liverpool road word at got out to some people about what we were up to.

For two hours or so it seemed that Igas weren't going to play along and only the ranks of Police vans lined up at the nearby Salford City rugby ground gave any indication we weren't all just wasting our time.

Eventually the arrival of the jolly coppers of the Police Liaison Team, and the somewhat less charismatic bruisers of the Tactical Assistance Unit in their riot vans indicated that we were about get going. Soon protesters and Police had formed neat little lines and were squaring off.

The day's convoy was not far behind; a lorry load of what looked like junk and another with some sort of pumping equipment, bracketed front and rear by Police vans. Faced with an immovable line of protesters it was soon stopped dead, blocking half the A57.

The TAU were deployed in force now. You wouldn't really mistake any of them for the Laughing Policeman, but they had at least left their Robocop costumes behind and seemed content just to glower and not actually threaten.

A polite instruction from the Police Commander to move was politely ignored and soon both sides were pushing each other.

It was all pretty friendly though. Some people may disagree, but having once met Greater Manchester TAU on a dark country lane I can  vouch that today was friendly.

With more cops than eco-warriors the end result was never in doubt, but with some very mature ladies putting their backs into it the progress of the Police line down Moss Lane was never more than a snail's pace and was at times glacial if not geological. It eventually took the convoy two hours to complete the last quarter mile of its journey.

So that was Day One.

Meanwhile the local residents have been getting themselves organised.

Barton Moss really is the edge of town. On one side is the great Manchester, Salford and Stockport urban conglomeration. On the other it is countryside as far as Warrington. Historically it has the first canal in Britain, the Bridgewater, and also the last, the Manchester Ship Canal. The railway that runs nearby was once used by Stephenson's rocket. Now it is the front line of the new technology of hydraulic fracturing.

Judging by the mood of the packed meeting in the nearby Brookfield Estate I went to last week this is most definitely not welcome.

copywrite Manchester Evening News
My main concern about fracking, as I told the BBC local radio when they interviewed me is Climate Change. But then I don't live next door to a fracking site.

Yet. Their worries were air pollution, noise, traffic and the intrusion of a noisy and dirty industrial process into what is a prime bird watching area.

So this looks like being the next skirmish in a global insurgency against what really must be the last stand of the fossil fuel dinosaurs. France and Bulgaria have already said no and across the country Tory squires and City bean counters are getting worried.

We can win this one.

So if fracking fails, where next for fossil fuels? The dustbin of history I hope.

So come along and help make that happen.

Northern Gas Gala

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Bad Capitalism: BP

"What the hell did we do to deserve this?"

This is what BP CEO Tony Haywood said when informed that the Deepwater Horizon had just exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing eleven people and unleashing the biggest oil spill in US history.

You can imagine the shock and indignation in his voice. How could this have happened to BP, the darlings of the business world, whose streamlined management structure was the stuff of Business Seminars the world over?

What's more, they were the nice ones, the ones with big green flower as a logo, the ones who cared about the environment.

How could it happen to them?

Here's how.


In 1997 John Browne, the dapper CEO of British Petroleum, as it then was, made a speech at Stanford University in which he acknowledged that Climate Change "cannot be discounted".

Today you'd expect him to go on to suggest that the Pope may very well be Catholic and that bears use the trees for their ablutions, but in 1997 this was big news coming from an oil man.

In the rush to crown Browne as the new Sun King most people ignored the fact he went on to say that "dramatic, sudden" action that "sought, at a stroke, drastically to restrict carbon emissions" would be "wrong".

For many, it was enough that he had even mentioned Global Warming.

Browne knew what he was doing making that speech, or at least he thought he did. If governments wanted to do something about Climate Change the easiest and simplest thing was to phase out coal fired power stations and replace them with gas. And where would they get their gas from? BP of course.

Three years later Browne spent millions of pounds rebranding BP as "Beyond Petroleum". He spent rather less money on a factory making solar panels. It was located in California, so the panels it made were too expensive to be commercially viable, but it was conveniently located for photo calls with 'Governator' Arnold Schwarzenegger.

However, even whilst Browne was making this speech, BP was employing British spy agency Hakluyt, and their German agent Manfred Schlickenrieder, to infiltrate Greenpeace in order to disrupt their campaign against BP's deep water drilling in the Atlantic. I was part of that campaign and wondered why BP were always one step ahead of us. We thought MI5 were hacking our emails. They probably were, but it was Schlickenrieder that was tipping off BP.

That Greenpeace saw through the greenwash didn't bother Browne. Some cynics suggested that calling yourself  Beyond Petroleum when your main business was oil was a bit confusing.  Others thought that Browne was just storing up trouble for the future, and that the clean and green image would rear up an bite BP on the bum if anything went wrong. But Browne just ignored them and lapped up the accolades.

Rogue Traders


The rebranding though was just window dressing for what Browne was really up to.

BP was an oil company with very little oil, so he went to look for some. More to the point he would regularly announce he had found it when he hadn't. The imaginary oil ended up costing them money, but in the short term BP's share price went up. That was not wise in the long term, but at least it was legal. However a lot of what BP's oil trading unit got up to under Browne was neither wise nor legal.

As both a producer and trader in oil BP had always had the chance to manipulate the market via what's known in the business as a 'squeeze', where a company would hold oil back in order to raise the price before selling.

However the world of derivatives opened up the opportunity for a reverse squeeze. Rather than using real oil to manipulate the virtual market, the oil traders would buy up oil derivatives in order to raise the price of the real crude.

This was sharp practice, and led to the company being repeatedly fined by US authorities. But that didn't bother BP, for as long as it's oil trading division brought in cash, the City was happy.


But what made the City money men even happier was Browne's cost cutting program.

Whole tiers of management were replaced, and complex indices of performance were replace by just one tally of a manager's success; cost. The manager who cut his budget got promoted. The manager who spent more went down. Managers moved rapidly around the company, so there was no point making savings tomorrow, costs had to be cut today. This short term thinking had a disastrous effect on BP's infrastructure, especially in it's controversial operations in Alaska.

Maintaining the safety of an oil pipeline isn't rocket science. You just need to clean the rust off and keep an eye on the joints. However such routine maintenance costs money and is easily postponed.

That's what happened in Prudhoe Bay. Costs were driven down, maintenance budgets slashed and pipelines and valves rusted in the Arctic winter. People knew what needed to be done, but BPs structure and pursuit of short term profits at all costs meant managers could only fix problems like Prudhoe Bay at the expenses of their careers.

In March 2006 chickens finally came home to roost for BP as corrosion caused a five day oil leak that spilled over 200,000 gallons of oil onto the ice. The spill ended up costing BP over $100 million in fines and lawsuits and they also had to fix their leaking pipes, which cost them far more than if they'd just maintained them in the first place.

But if BP wasn't too bothered about oil spills, there was another type of leak they really didn't like. As the cuts started to bite disgruntled employees had been contacting former oil trader Chuck Hamel, who passed their information on to the media or environmental groups.

BP hated this. They hired private investigators to tap Hamel's phones, intercept his post, steal his rubbish and sift through his credit card records. Slightly more bizarrely women were recruited to try to lure him into a honey trap. When the story eventually broke it caused a storm, and a judge accused the consortium running the pipeline for BP of behaving like "Nazi Germany".

Meanwhile Greenpeace's campaign against BP was again being thwarted, this time by the FBI. This being the window between the end of the Cold War and the beginning of the War on Terror, the Feds were evidently short on suspects and decided Greenpeace were a "domestic terrorist group".

Political Influence

Blair, Schwarzenegger and Browne
Seeing which way the political wind was blowing, Browne started courting Tony Blair before he became Prime Minister. Once in office New Labour's relationship with Britain's biggest company was so close it was said BP stood for "Blair Petroleum".

Browne's chief adviser, Nick Butler, was a former Labour insider and parliamentary candidate, and his head of communications was was Anji Hunter, Blair's former chief of staff. Meanwhile former BP CEO David Simon became Blair's Minister for European Trade and Competitiveness.

When Libya offered to give up its nuclear program in exchange for being allowed back into the human race, MI6 spook Mark Allen led the negotiations. Shortly afterwards he was working for BP, negotiating an oil deal with Gaddafi. When Libya said that the continued detention of Lockerbie bomber Basset al-Megrahi, and plans to prosecute the murderer of PC Yvonne Fletcher, were problems the message was passed on. Al-Megrahi was released, and leads to who killed the police woman were not followed up.

When there were calls for Britain to follow the USA in suing Libya for the deaths and injuries caused by the explosives they'd given to terrorists, including the Provisional IRA, the government initially refused, before being forced into a U turn by an outraged public.

Unsafe Practices

Political influence clearly helped BP enourously, but it couldn't keep away the grim reality that if you neglected basic maintenance in a dangerous industry like oil it would have a disastrous effect.

BP claimed it took safety seriously, and produced graphs to prove it. However the measure they used was personal safety, counting how many workers had had slips, trips and other minor accidents. All this could measure was how dozzy the staff were. However it probably didn't even do that, as the worker who scolded himself on his coffee, or sprained an ankle by not using the hand rail on the stairs, could easily be persuaded to keep quiet if to speak out might affect their job.

But such spin could not hide the reality of dangerously neglected facilities and demoralized and overworked staff. 

Grangemouth refinery
In 2000, three fires broke out at the Grangemouth refinery. No-one was seriously hurt, but an investigation by the Health and Safety Executive concluded that they had "endangered lives of workers and civilians".

In 2002 the authorities in California became suspicious that the Carson plant reporting a decrease in safety violations despite no repairs actually being carried out. Inspectors were refused entry on a variety of grounds, but when they eventually returned with the Sheriff they found that 80% of the tanks breached regulations and that BP had been lying.

BP' reaction to these events was telling. Paul Maslin in Grangemouth, who had repeatedly asked for money to repair his facility, was demoted whilst Colin Reid in California was promoted despite his false reporting.

Texas City refinery
What happened next in Texas then was no surprise.

In 2002 John Mazoni, Head of Refining and Marketing warned in a report that there were 'serious concerns about potential for a major site incident ' at the Texas City refinery. He was ignored.

Instead a program of vigorous cost cutting continued at the plant. A former executive Vice President later said 'the guys who ran the refinery. they were afraid for their jobs, there was a culture of fear'.

It could only end one way.

On 23 March 2005 workers repairing a raffinate splitter gasoline unit overfilled the unit. The level indicator and alarm were not working properly, and hydrocarbons overflowed into the blowback stack. This was an old model, no longer used by other companies, and there was a known risk of hydrocarbons leaking if this happened. In the control room staff, working 12 hour shifts due to shortages, failed to notice and the alarm was broken.

130 feet away from the unit staff were relaxing in wooden trailers. Regulations said that the trailers should have been 350 feet away unless blast proofed. A pick up truck was parked nearby with its engine running. It should not have been there either. The hydrocarbon fumes caused the engine to race making it to overheat. This then triggered an explosion which shattered glass 3/4 mile away.

Fifteen people died and 170 were hospitalised, with injuries including 90% burns and lost limbs.

Dodging Responsibility

Ewa Rowe c. Jeff Wilson
The day after the blast Browne arrived on the scene and said BP accepted full responsibility for the "incident", which was stating the bleeding obvious as it was their plant that had just exploded.

However behind the scenes they were doing exactly the opposite to what they said. Helped by a US press that seemed more interested in trying to blame Al Qaeda, BP nearly got away with it. The six hard hats that overfilled the unit were held solely responsible for the accident and sacked. The publicity budget was doubled and publications which carried lucrative BP advertising were warned not to write negative stories. One PR expert said "They handled the catastrophe like a class act".

Unfortunately for them Eva Rowe, the daughter of Linda and James Rowe, who both blown to pieces by the blast, had a surprise for them. In the small print of her settlement with the company was the clause that they had to release internal documents. These showed how that not only did BP know of the risk of an imminent disaster at the Texas City plant, but that they actually calculated that it would be more cost effective to pay off the victims than to make the repairs that would have saved lives.

Riding Their Luck

This wasn't the end of the bad news in 2005. In July the giant oil platform the Thunder Horse was evacuated as Hurricane Dennis hit the Gulf of Mexico. When the storm was over the $1 billion platform was found listing at 30 degrees. It turned out the rush to get it finished had led to a six inch pipe being incorrectly plumbed, letting in sea water.

This though was an extremely lucky break for BP as during the repairs it was found a critical underwater pipe had been badly welded and had cracked. Had this not been spotted “It could have been catastrophic,” said Gordon A. Aaker Jr., a senior engineering consultant on the project. “You would have lost a lot of oil a mile down before you would have even known. It could have been a helluva spill".

Smart people, and smart organisations, learn from near misses like this, but BP didn't. Instead they continued to chase quick profits and ride their luck.

Clearly though this wasn't going to last forever.

Meet The New Boss

Shortly afterwards Browne departed the company after lying in court over the relationship with his
ex-boyfriend. It's hard not to have a touch of sympathy for him here. He lived with his mother, a survivor of Auschwitz with old fashioned values, and worked in the ultra macho world of oil and big money. Coming out as gay would not have been easy for a man who struggled to relate to real people at the best of times.

His replacement was Tony Haywood. He was a former 'turtle', as they called Browne's globe trotting personal assistants. This was virtually the only way to get to the top of BP under Browne, and the result was a C Team who worshipped the boss and rarely dissented, which is never good management.

Hayward was effectively gifted the job when the Ewa Rowe settlement revealed that his main rival,  Mazoni, had sent an email complaining that dealing with the Texas City blast had caused him to lose "a precious day of my leave".

Not surprisingly the accidents continued under Haywood.

In 2008 poor cementing of an oil well in Caspian Sea caused a gas leak that could have killed all 200 people on BP's rig. They managed to keep the accident a commercial secret, but were betrayed when in 2010 Wikileaks published the account they'd given to the US Consulate.

Between June 2007 and February 2010 the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration Administration hit BP with 862 citations, not counting the 709 for Texas City. The next worst offender was Sunoco with 127.

And for good measure there were three leaks within a month in Prudhoe Bay.

Deepwater Horizon

So that was the situation when the drilling rig Deepwater Horizon, leased by BP from Transocean, started operations in the Macondo field of the Gulf of Mexico.

When it exploded on 20 April 2010, killing eleven crew, plunging another 115 into the sea and causing the worst oil spill in US history, it was merely chickens coming home to roost for BP.

According to the greenwash in their 2009 Sustainability Review BP was working towards its goal of 'no accidents, no harm to people and no damage to the environment', a refrain that was gleefully taken up by American politicians, with even Obama saying in early April 2010 "Oil rigs today generally don't cause spills." The result was one of the laxest regulatory regimes in the world.

Meanwhile BP was cutting corners on every aspect of the Macondo operation.They used the cheaper "long string" piping to line the bore, an unusual choice given that they knew that this would be a risky "high temperature, high pressure" well.

Halliburton recommended that BP use 21 centralisers to keep the drill pipe in place. The Deepwater Horizon only had six on board. They could have ordered more but the rig was costing them $1 million a day to hire and Haywood had made a goal of reducing unproductive time.

Next the cementing of the bore was rushed. Doing it properly would have meant paying the Halliburton contractors to stay on. Instead they were sent home without the usual checks being carried out.

Then just like with the Thunder Horse, there was another near miss. On 8 March 2010 a 'kick' occurred when gas entered the well and surged up the pipe. It took the crew a remarkably slow 33 minutes to react. Fortunately the Blowout Preventer worked and saved the rig, but it was a close run thing.

Again though, no lessons were learnt.

Then at 9PM 20 April 2010 the Deepwater Horizon pressure tested the well. It seems the BP
engineers lacked the skills to read the results. BP's monitoring station on land had shut at 5PM, as a cost saving measure, and nobody on board noticed the deadly pressure build up.

The first indication of trouble was when the supply ship Damon B. Bankson  noticed drilling mud coming out of the top of the rig. By the time they had radioed the Deepwater Horizon it was too late.

In the aftermath BP set up a website to give information on the disaster, which they gave the title of "Gulf of Mexico - Transocean Drilling Incident."

The rig could have been saved at the last minute if the Transocean staff on board had noticed the pressure build up. However this was the only link in the chain that led to the disaster for which BP was not wholly responsible for. 

Once the US government became involved the website's name was changed to BP Drilling Incident.

"Life's Not Fair"

BP tried other tricks too.

They claimed the leak was "only" 5000 barrels a day, and managed to get a compliant media to use this figure even when independent scientists were saying it was clearly much more. 62,000 barrels a day is now the best estimate.

Then they tried to blame, and sue, the manufacturer of the Blow Out Preventer. The BOP may have
been damaged in 8 March kick, or it may have failed due to the lack of centralisers, but in either case they were never expected to be 100% reliable. This was like than the operator of an unsafe aeroplane blaming a fatal crash on the company that made the escape chutes.

Finally they tried to rally thier friends in the UK, claiming they were the victims of an anti-British witch hunt by the US. The Daily Express wrote that Obama was "anti-British as ever" for no better reason than that his Dad had been tortured by the colonial authorities during the Mau Mau rebellion.

When all that failed they pulled the ever reliable "too big to fail" argument. Haywood and the Chairman of the Board met with President Obama and said that if the US didn't lay off BP there would be no company left and they'd be left sweeping up the oil themselves. This worked.

However it really was all over for Haywood.

He left with a years salary, that was £1 million, a pension pot worth £11 million and a seat on the board of a subsidiary worth £150,000 a year.

He considered himself the victim and was reported to have said "Life isn't fair."

I think I actually agree with him there.


Spills and Spin: The Inside Story of BP by Tom Bergin
MI6 'Firm' Spied on Green Groups Sunday Times 17 June 2001
A Review of the FBIs Investigations Into Certain Advocacy Groups US Department of Justice
In BP's Record, A History of Boldness and  Costly Blunders The New York Times 12 July 2010
BP Sustainability Review 2009

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Top Five Pubs In Doctor Who

The venerable Time Lord is fifty earth years old this month.

As a good, old British institution it's not surprising he's spent a decent portion of that time in some good, old British pubs.

So, not counting seedy space bars and foreign drinking establishments, here's my Top Five of Doctor Who pubs.

The Fleur-de-Lys in The Android Invasion (1975)

"Let's try the pub!"

Don't you just hate those pubs that try really hard to look authentic and Oldy Worldy, but are in fact completely fake?

Well, that's the Fleur-de-Lys, which has the added feature that the landlord, and the customers, are androids who don't get turned on until they're needed.

The Android Invasion was Doctor Who does Invasion of the Body Snatchers, with a touch of The Prisoner.

It's almost a farewell for the old UNIT team, so it's a bit of a shame Nicholas Courtney wasn't available as the Brigadier. The Kraal are pretty forgettable Monsters of the Week, but it's a lot of fun and contains wonderful lines such as "Is that finger loaded?" delivered in the way that only Tom Baker could.

The King's Arms in The Lodger

"Football, that's the one with the sticks."

All we know about the King's Arms is that it is somewhere in Colchester, Craig Owen drinks there and it has a football team.

Given it's geographical location we could perhaps make some inferences about the number of squaddies and women with fake tans amongst the clientele, but Craig doesn't seem that sort of chap.

All told I imagine it as a rather blokey sort of place, but not too threatening, mostly serving lager, with Sky TV and a food menu that starts and ends with pie and peas. There are probably worse places to drink in Essex.

The Fox Inn in Terror of the Zygons  


"Was that bang big enough for you, Brigadier?"

Another pub from central casting, but this time a Scottish one, complete with dead animals on the walls.

The place is actually being used by UNIT as their HQ whilst they try to figure out what's been knocking off North Sea oil rigs. (Clue, it's a monster and they're close to Loch Ness....).

The villainous Zygons are one of the better Monsters of the Week, hence their return in the fiftieth anniversary special, although the Doctor finds the idea of just three of them trying to take over the world rather amusing. Indeed, Tom Baker doesn't appear to be taking any of this seriously by this stage, and even pointing out the rather obvious bugging device in the dead animal seems a little beneath him. 

Gore Crow Hotel in Battlefield (1989)


"What we have sir is the finest beer in the area, even if I do say so myself."

Now here's a better place to drink. It's in the CAMRA guide, the landlord brews something called Arthur's Ale in his shed and that has the real scabbard of Excalibur on the wall.

Battlefield is a story from the final series of the classic show, and one that shows what a tragedy it was the Beeb pulled the plug when they did.

Structurally the story suffers from being stretched from three parts to four, and then having the Brigadier added in as an afterthought. But it's very well done and the decision to bring dear old Alistair back is a great one.

UNIT, now equipped with bullets for all eventualities, actually put in a decent performance for once under the 'new' Brigadier, Winifred Bambera. She appears to drive the men a little harder than the old Brig, and gets results on the battlefield. Perhaps Sir Alistair was a little too soft on them.

We also get to see the Tudor pile that Lethbridge-Stewart and Doris now live in. How he paid for it on a soldiers salary is a good question. Perhaps he pocketed a few of those gold bullets before he retired.

The Cloven Hoof in The Daemons 


Yates "Fancy a dance Brigadier?"
Brigadier "I'd rather have a pint."

Those two lines confirmed an awful lot of suspicions about the old UNIT team. Captain Yates really was gay and the Brigadier really was an alcoholic.

 A tale of black magic in an English village, with the somewhat cerebrally challenged locals under the sway of a mysterious, charismatic leader, this sounds like Doctor Who does The Wicker Man. In actual fact Doctor Who had Jon Pertwee nearly going up in flames whilst tied to the Maypole twelve months before Edward Woodward had his appointment with the titular dummy.

The Daemons is on of those stories we were all really looking forward to when it came out on VHS, but which ultimately proved to be a little disappointing when we actually watched it. It's great on atmosphere, but the plot relies a bit too much on the less than dynamic duo of Yates and Benton to carry things along, and the both the Doctor and UNIT are completely useless.

Fortunately for the earth, the monster reacts to this dreadful scripting by deciding to self destruct. Can't blame him.

Aldourne, the Wiltshire village where it was filmed, is a pleasant enough place to visit and in WWII it was the home of Easy Company of the 101st Airborne Division, the heroes of Band of Brothers. The pub is back to being the Blue Boar, but the town does feature some nifty TARDIS waste bins.