Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Off to the Politics of Oil and Gas Conference today (May 9th), so I’m up as usual at the crack of dawn to refresh and update News and Links, and trawl through emails, feeds and blogs. I read News alerts, check Analytics, sort the German Shepherd for the day and do all my research. I forget to do any housework, but why break a lifetime’s habit? I stuff my passport, decade-old Nokia, Nikon, bus pass, credit card, cash and a ‘to-do’ list into my 'foul-weather' jacket pockets, put my teeth in and off I go to Ellon on the wee bus.

Passports are handy. I went out one morning, when I was younger with high disposable income and a chaotic lifestyle, and woke up the next day in Amsterdam!

I think the Stagecoach Bluebird into Aberdeen is running late, but I can't work the screen or keyboard on the kiosk beside the bus-stop. The Nokia hasn't adopted British Summer Time yet, and I'm not surprised, what with the weather. I don't wear a timepiece - my watch stopped years ago and I didn't replace the battery. It still tells the correct time twice a day. I'm a man weathered  by, and out of time.

A May sun is beating down. No one’s seen the sun for months, and I’m sweating. Not as much as the Stagecoach Bluebird driver as he tries to get my concessionary pass to scan when the bus arrives in Ellon. My fellow passengers and pensioners in the queue behind, who held me up at Ellon’s Costcutter by having a newsie in the aisle, forgetting their PINs and buying scratchcards at the new steel-shuttered baccy counter, tut-tut behind me – the hypocritical impatient old bastards.

En route I hiss loudly at the Trump development; it's force of habit now. I shuffle quickly through Aberdeen's ghastly bus station and Union Square monstrosity and check my list. I need a list when I go out, else I end up in the pub to make a list and that’s the start of a slippery slope. When arriving on public transport, the state of the city is enough to make folk boak. The Schooner is boarded up but that just means a raiding party from Torry crossed the Dee the day before for a rammie. I worked in Guild Street throughout the ‘70s, and it was the same then. When I was left in the building (Impulse Publications, 28 Guild Street; it now houses the VAT man), I used to go exploring throughout the entire block, via fire exits that weren't blocked completely, unlike the aisles in Costcutter. The Tivoli former theatre next door was in a pretty woeful condition back then. I recall, even in pitch darkness, creeping about at Dark O'clock.

Now the Tivoli is getting refurbished. Unfortunately the pleasant lass on the door needs the price of my first pint just to enter the Tivoli and view a Howard Butterworth exhibition, whereas I want photos of the refurbishment and I don't like Butterworth's work. They have done a marvellous job with the Tivoli and deserve the citizens' plaudits and patronage. Next it's Shiprow’s Maritime Museum for the Oscar and Torry Battery exhibitions. Then I visit and escape from the Tolbooth. All this before I’d been to the office, or listened to Labour’s Shadow Energy Minister at the Conference. I meet Gordon Brown at Peacock Visual Arts - artist J Gordon Brown hanging his Colour Abstracts show in Peacock's Castle Street premises.

I stop at a bus-stop for a rollie and check my mobile. Teenagers - who should be at school - giggle and point at the antiquity (the phone, not me, though I'm a man out of puff. What bugger said I should get out more?). I consider telling the cheeky little truants that I’d been up since 4 am, that the mobile's borrowed, how I am a silver surfer and Master of Technology. How I am down with the kids, love my Mumford and Sons, and gained an A level in Truancy. I could tell them how I'd missed every single Physics lesson, and still dinnae ken if it was Einstein or Newton who discovered gravity. How they should respect their elders.

I desist – they’ve probably never seen a phone like mine before and they might ask questions. I’ve already fallen out with the older generation at the Ellon shops and bus-stop. Besides, with the sun still shining and Aberdeen’s female teenagers dressed in their usual skimpy outfits, it probably isn’t a good idea for a scruffy old man with a long-lensed Nikon to start a stramash with 14 year old girls at a Union Street bus-stop. Yvonne and my solicitor Peter might understand, but Grampian Police would likely frogmarch me to a cell through the mortuary (again), then lift Riley and Yvonne in Collieston, before stuffing child-porn files on my computer and planting a Kilo of blow.

At my nearby office I have breakfast (Guinness - my city office is the Prince of Wales). I check the printed news as best I can (I knew I'd forgotten something). There's loads on the Conference. At the opening yesterday, former UK Energy Minister - there's a growing Club - Charles Hendry had highlighted UK Government support to the Oil and Gas sector. Other speakers claimed that an independent Scotland would make better use of oil revenue, of four decades of lost opportunities with North Sea Oil revenues passing straight into the general taxation pot. Certainly the City shipped many of the benefits of North Sea Oil overseas, employing other nations' workforces and depriving British manufacturers of its investment lifeblood. At the session I’m attending - oh dear, Shadow UK Energy Minister and Better Together supporter Tom Greatrex (MP for Rutherglen in Glasgow) will trigger a row over independence by suggesting ‘it does the people of Scotland a disservice to assert that we are on the cusp of a second oil boom’.

There's an interesting bit in the paper about a bracelet which you wear on your leg. It is being used in the U.S. 'to monitor how much alcohol someone is drinking 24 hours a day'. I share this titbit with a nearby early drinker. I tell him that I think it's a stupid idea. Anyone drinking 24 hours a day would be permanently legless and have nowhere to wear the bracelet.

There is another item in the newspaper about Aberdeen University being second only to St Andrews when it comes to admitting students from deprived postcodes. Only 51 students out of 12,000 come from the 20% poorest areas. There are plans at Aberdeen Uni to stage a working class forum with the aim of creating a new officer position representing entrants from deprived backgrounds. Last time I mixed with students Gordon Brown was a radical student Rector of Edinburgh University, organising demos against the apartheid Springboks touring rugby side. At Aberdeen Uni Terry Brotherstone was caning Alistair Darling, who was still in short trousers. The beating failed to do the Darling any good, which is another story.

I decide to have another swift pint in the St Machar Bar. Quick pints and tall stories are a thread running through my life. This article will get serious soon. I’m sorry if you’re skipping through looking for stuff on the Politics of Oil and Gas Conference. What are the chances of this happening? The next morning I wake up in an Amsterdam whorehouse with a student from Aberdeen Uni towering over me!

Just kidding, though in the St Machar I do sit down next to a student eating a hearty lunch. Let’s call him Calum, because his pals cry ‘Bye Calum’ when they are leaving. Calum offers me the remains of his meal. Obviously I look emaciated, but I’d just had a Whopper in Union Terrace Gardens, so I smile and decline. Students can afford £3 pints and cooked meals (that they're unable to finish) these days. I tell Calum I'm awa' to the Politics of Oil and Gas Conference Global Responsibilities session. Calum says that he really should have booked a place because he was a Politics student, but he wasn’t attending. Next it transpires that his mate Andy on the Students Association had broken the ‘Students from poor backgrounds’ story I’d been reading in the Prince of Wales. Andy said it was divisive, a regression to class warfare and that it would label students because of their social standing. There is a big scrap brewing about student leaders encouraging divisions along class lines. Calum himself was a member of the student Conservative and Unionist Association. This explained the pints and dinner, and offering tramps like me the scraps from his plate was kindly, obviously part of the new social face of the caring coalition. I avoid my first scrap of the day, shoot a Grouse down my throat and leave the bar.

200 metres from the St Machar to Kings College so I only get lost once. Luckily I meet a stranger to the city – Mandy, from Transition Towns (sic) – and she’d given a talk at the Conference the day before. Last time I was at the Centre was in 2001 for a Conference considering whether Gordon Brown (the politician) was still a radical. I’d met Tommy Sheridan, whom I hadn’t seen since the Poll Tax demo outside the Sterling Park Sheriff Officers' building off Glasgow’s George Square. Tommy’s not a comrade short on convictions. I'd met Kenny MacAskill, who was still drinking (morosely) in 2001. It was a time when I smoked pot a lot and Tom Nairn found me skinning up in the loos, like he cared a jot. Then I sat under the apple tree (of learning) outside Kings College (pictured), shelter from a storm. It reminded me of the ill-constructed Den we'd built over several school months, instead of attending Physics. Why had I not reached University? A savage gust of wind had shot down College Bounds. A heap of large apples had fallen on my head.

I soon find myself in Kings College Conference Centre. High above in a disco-type modern cage, real-time commentary is being undertaken and beamed worldwide. Commentaries are useful because now I can read the summaries later. Over the decades, my Pitmans Shorthand skills have evaporated faster than the Angels' share in a distillery.

I have forgotten my reading glasses. I reflect on a time when a Telex machine marked the advent of the promised 'white-hot technology', a harbinger of some Communications Nirvana. Laptops are on frantic charge; there are tablets everywhere; Facebook and Twitter flicker on phones. By the time the afternoon session is over everyone in the room will be in a new Google circle. The words ‘You must get out more’ are ringing in my ears. The only other familiar noise for some reason is a distant tune – Radiohead’s ‘No Surprises’, which by coincidence I had downloaded as the ringtone on my Nokia.

After some glares I switch off the Nokia and settle down for the first expert speaker. I have a question for either this bribery lawyer on first, or the Labour Shadow Energy minister, so I wonder which switch works the mic. I press one and a light comes on which would be great if I had brought my glasses, then the chairperson says, ‘Wave your hands about if you’ve got a contribution to make’ and that is high-tech enough for me so I feel much more at ease. For the gist of my question on bribery, Bitter Together and Ian Taylor, vitriolic Vitol oil trader, follow the National Collective link ‘We Will Not be Bullied’  http://www.forviemedia.co.uk/links.html

Note to self - on ‘to-do-before-leaving-the-house’ lists, remember to add ‘ glasses’. And in future I must remember to switch off my phone at the theatre, in the bookies and at conferences. No mobiles are allowed in one city pub I frequent: they’re dipped into liquid if they so much as tweet. Pensioners, politics students and teenagers might benefit from the same treatment.

The University's May Festival this weekend promises many treats. Their British Science Festival last year drew 30,000 visitors to the campus on one day alone. Clearly they know how to organise and run events efficiently. There follows a brief summary of the Conference programme.


In 2014 Scottish voters face a referendum on whether they remain citizens of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland or become an independent nation state. Their understanding of the political economy of oil and gas is likely, for the first time since the '70s, to play a significant part in how they decide their future. But Scottish independence is only one of many decisions to be made about the future of hydrocarbons, and whether Scotland is independent or not, they are decisions that need to be taken. Public debate of the many aspects of this looming future is scarce, almost as if the future was inevitable or we were unable to influence it. Many decisions are being left to lawyers, government, experts or the market. The debate has taken place, moreover, with little reference to the vast array of international experience in the politics of oil and gas, across countries as diverse as Norway, Russia, Kazakhstan, Ecuador, Canada, the United States, as well as Nigeria, Venezuela and other OPEC member states.

At this significant moment in history, the University of Aberdeen, with partner organizations, is holding this public conference to bring together academics, politicians, environmental/civil right activists and trade unionists. We aim to stimulate broader public debate by addressing at the conference a series of key questions about the future of oil and gas in the UK, and beyond.

The conference will begin and end with a focus on the decisions that need to be taken and on who should be involved in those decisions and how they should be involved. It will focus on three overlapping sets of issues:
•             What should be done with the profits of oil and gas?
•             What should be the future of the oil and gas workforce?
•             How can oil and gas production be best reconciled with care for the environment?

The following questions will run through the whole event.
•             Who does and who should play what role in taking decisions about the future of oil and gas? Experts? Companies? Government? Civil society? Universities? The workforce? And what relations are there between all the different groups? Do they overlap? Are there hierarchies and, if so, are they a problem? How does all this compare to other countries?
•             Beyond the national, what voice do non-UK based companies have, and what voice should they have in the decisions regarding oil and gas? What are the effects of European Commission (EU) attempts to regulate the industry, and what has been the response of industry and unions? What is and what should be the role of international civil society and environmental organizations?
•             If Scotland were to become independent, would the politics of oil and gas change? There would be negotiation over UK and Scottish claims, but would there be other implications? For example, would oil companies and trade unions have more leverage over government if hydrocarbons were proportionally more important to the economy? More broadly, what are the implications of Nationalist claims that sovereignty would be ‘popular’? Even without full independence, could Scotland advance the kind of claim made by Shetlanders?

The session I attend brings together the three sets of issues — profits, workforce and environment - with a focus on the UK and Scotland’s global responsibilities. Questions covered as follows:-
•             Are UK-based oil and gas workers on overseas rotations and UK citizens employed overseas being held individually responsible for their conduct? Is there a need for change in that regard?
•             Could and should the UK government be holding companies operating on UK soil responsible for their actions overseas? How successful have been attempts of English courts to hold parent companies responsible for the actions of subsidiaries? What are the effects of the EU’s recent attempts to hold European-based companies operating overseas to the same standards as in Europe? Could a license to operate in the UK be made conditional upon fulfilling obligations abroad? How effective has the Bribery Act been in addressing corruption? And what attention is and could be paid to the trans-UK environmental effects of UK oil and gas extraction?
•             Following on the Profits session, to what extent should oil and gas revenues be channelled to meeting our global responsibilities in international development? Is it enough to rely on corporate social responsibility (CSR)? How effective, for example, have Shell’s development schemes proved in Nigeria?
•             What responsibilities do Scottish and UK universities have with regard to the industry, including in its global operations? What responsibilities do they have with regard to the foreign post-graduates who they train and who return to their home countries? And what role do they have in commenting on the global responsibility of companies themselves?

James Downie, Partner, Stronachs LLP. A brief introduction to the legal framework.
George Frynas, Professor of CSR and Strategic Management,Middlesex Uni. CSR and international development: A false promise?
Barnaby Briggs, Strategic Relations Manager, Shell International. The reality of oil theft & corporate responsibility in Nigeria.
Tom Greatrex MP, Shadow Energy Minister. Oil & gas: political priorities and government responsibilities.

Invigorating, I really must get out more. Tom Greatrex avoids controversy by dumping his intended speech, after orders from Guffsville probably. Barnaby Briggs from Shell fields flak from all quarters. There are contributors accused of cultural imperialism over Nigeria: Victor Chavez gets some ill-informed criticism. James Downie gives the impression that bribery and corruption amount to little more than ‘a few bottles of whisky’, despite the activities of Vitol and the entire history of capitalism.

The Corruption Perceptions Index details corruption in the oil and gas industries (1/176 being the most corrupt: West Africa countries top the list, probably because corruption is well hidden in places like the Middle-East.) Britain ranks a disappointing 17/176. Finland, Denmark and New Zealand fare best.

I don’t make my contribution. Sometimes it’s best to say nothing, to listen and learn. You can read summaries of all the speeches and debates from the good folk that did contribute at  http://t.co/zg73WF71J9  or  http://www.abdn.ac.uk/cisrul/events/2268/ 

Jake Molloy of the RMT was the only trade union speaker at the Conference. He told the audience:- “The engagement of the workforce is fundamental to bringing about improved performance both in terms of productivity and moreover, in a major accident hazard industry like the offshore oil and gas industry, engagement will deliver a significant improvement in safety performance.” Jake concluded by saying he felt there was no political will to change regulation and legislation at a government level, either now or with Scottish independence.

It’s raining when I leave. The jacket will keep me warm and dry. I need a pee, the first for hours. I hope Riley is crossing his legs at home. To quote a weak joke from the ‘80s, we pissed the last oil bonanza against the wall. Boom, boom.

At home I watch the News. In one of the biggest cross-border actions since banks were targeted over Libor rate-rigging, EU investigators have raided BP, Statoil and Shell offices over allegations of price fixing, specifically reporting distorted prices to a top rating agency. Chicago-based Prime International Trading, which deals in crude oil and other commodities, has filed a proposed class-action lawsuit against all three multinationals.

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