Tales from an offshore journalist: Part 1

AFTER LAST WEEK’S BLOG, I had a note from Dave Brookes, ex-BP, commenting on a few points from the most recent portion of my subsea history lesson. Firstly, Dave reminded me that the Snorre subsea controls failure was the result of problems with the wet mateable connectors, so I was not wrong, just missing a detail. He also gave a date (late 1988) for the end of the risible DISPS subsea technology programme. He said management thought it was a waste of time because THERE WERE NO OIL FIELDS BEYOND 300 METERS! Such great management at BP. While this preceded the John Browne era by a few years, DB did recall hiding out (at BP Chemicals) for a while.

The exchange with DB reminded me of an incident that made me think that writing a history is not just about projects, but about events and people. So I plan to do a few interim pieces on some of these from my 35+ years of ploughing the subsea furrow. I am not planning to embarrass anyone and I hope that no one is horrified by these tales. That is not my intention. And by the way, these stories are not in any particular chronological order.

The incident with DB occurred in Paris at one of Subsea UK’s events in La Defense, near Total’s offices, which was meant to ensure that the French operator with all of its deepwater activity in Angola and Nigeria did not miss out on some of the UK’s capabilities. As if. Anyway, at the first of these gatherings I was having a chat with Dave – he did speak to me despite the fact that I was persona non grata with BP for writing a series of articles on its screw-ups on Foinaven – and another fellow, who I did not know, came over to say hello. Dave introduced me to Dave Lucas, part of ExxonMobil’s deepwater development team (head of risers apparently), who immediately took a step backwards. And this was long before Covid-19. I thought maybe it was my breath, but it seem that this ExMob engineer was more than a bit wary of speaking around me. Imagine that!

I was not much bothered by Mr Lucas’ less than congenial greeting, but said my goodbyes and went off to speak to someone else. A year later at the same event, I was approached by none other than the same Dave Lucas. ExMob had a corporate sub to SEN and he started reading it and determined that not only did I know a fact or two, but I was not a demon. We had a most amenable chat including about his vegetable growing in Houston which is funny now because my wife and I have an allotment in Cheltenham. What a difference a year makes. Could be a song in that.

There were lots of other times that people either did not want to talk to me or, alternatively, wanted to give me a piece of their mind. One of these was at an early UTC conference in Bergen. I was with a group of folks having a drink at the end of one of the days. Slowly people drifted away and I found myself standing, again, with someone I did not know – Pierre DeLaittre of Shell International – who wanted to berate me for revealing details of a contract – subsea manifold design (?) – that Shell had not announced nor even told the losing bidders about.

I took it on the chin as I did lots of times when I found out about something I was not supposed to know about. It turned out to be fortuitous. PDL left Shell after a while and went back to France to work for Elf and then Total after the merger-cum-takeover. Tangentially through knowing him, I subsequently secured a number of contracts with Total for the type of work that journalists are not expected to do. People did discover that I knew a fact or two.

One more story. Back in the day – early 1990’s – Coflexip, as it was known then, was the market leader in flexibles, as it still is, such that when someone else won a contract it was a big deal. So it was that a little known company – Pag-o-Flex (anyone else remember them?) – won a contract with Norsk Hydro for Oseberg Subsea (?). It was so small – something like less than NOK1mn or was it NOK10mn – that Hydro did not even announce it. It was a big deal, though, as it was the first commercial award for P-o-F.

After it came out, the project manager, Magne Boge, called me in an agitated state and demanded to know who told me about the award. Of course, I did not tell him except to say it was not P-o-F. Like the event with PDL, Boge proved to be a useful contact when he joined the TOGI project and often filled me in on the latest events.

So it was that it was not always a bad thing getting myself in hot water. More tales to come. Enjoy the heat!

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