Monday, November 15, 2010

Nigerian Oil

My apologies for the lapse in updates. Much has gone on since I last wrote, so I won't even try to summarize but will instead pick up where life is at the moment. Past details will probably fill themselves over time.

Cambridge University (CU) prides itself on being very knowledgeable. As a student, I reap the benefits of the fact that CU likes to share that knowledge...a lot. Everywhere I turn, there is another seminar series. Departments, societies, and colleges bring in experts, professors, and industry professionals from all over to speak on every topic under the sun. I regularly attend the weekly seminar series in the Department of Chemical Engineering, partly for the outstanding snacks held beforehand (with tea, of course). I'm telling you, these people know how to make sweets - ahem - "confectioneries," as they are called over here.

Last Friday night, I bumped into my housemate Teresa and ended up at a panel discussion revolving around Shell's oil activities in the Nigeria Delta. I heard "Shell," and "drilling," and thought it would be a technical discussion. Think again! Instead, I got a crash course in Nigerian politics, society, and community behavior, all relating to oil. Talk about an eye-opener...

Apparently, the Niger Delta is very rich in oil. Currently, there a few energy companies producing oil, including Shell. The Nigerian government takes 95% of Shell's profits, which makes the government officials very, very rich and gives them quite a bit of control over what Shell can and cannot do in that area. In fact, the output pipe from a Shell refinery is sometimes diverted to another tanker for a while "off the books," so that someone in government can pay off a loan or return a favor. Also, people will steal oil straight from transportation pipes that run above ground by simply breaking into them. This is a problem.

Also, if an energy company wishes to build new pipes or use land where people are living, they used to approach one community (the "host community") and make a contract. The community let the energy company use the land or whatever, and the community got money for a new school or something. However, neighboring communities would get jealous and then go burn the host community to the ground. So that was also a problem. In addition, the new school would sometimes get contracted to someone's brother or uncle, and the money would walk off. This is still a problem.

There were four people on the panel: a Shell employee (hereafter referred to as Jack), a moderator, someone obviously community-development oriented (hereafter referred to as Joe), and one other participant. Jack stood up and spoke for about 10 minutes about the complex nature of the situation in Nigeria, several lessons that Shell had learned over the years (including the lesson that Shell is not very good at learning), and ended by admitting that the situation was far from fixed but progress was happening. Joe stood up and proclaimed that the culture of corruption in Nigeria was very, very bad, that Shell's efforts thus far were not sufficient and that Shell could do more in spite of their "excuses." Jack would then point out the steps Shell had been taking in an attempt to improve the situation, and Joe would call it insufficient, direct his criticisms of Shell as a whole at Jack, treat Jack somewhat like a child who needed reprimanding, and propose that real change was only possible if the whole political system was broken and rebuilt. Oh yes, and occasionally mention that since Shell has tons and tons of money, why wasn't it spending more on this effort? And so it proceeded for the entire night. Notably, never once did Jack take a swipe at Joe.

What did I learn from all this? Well, a couple things jumped out.

1) The world is very, very complex. Particularly when you add people into the equation. At one point, Jack said, "Shell hires mainly engineers. We are very good at what we do, we have amazing technical expertise, and we know how to drill for and produce oil. We expect that when we do A, we will get B. That every time we do A, we will get the same result. However, that is not true in social situations and Nigerian communities."

His point was that Shell employees are sometimes ill-equipped to manage political relations in Nigeria because of their mindset about actions and consequences. I spoke to him afterwards about this particular quote of his, and he and I agreed that being an engineer and being a liaison or company representative in political relations require two completely different mindsets. In engineering, if you cannot trust that doing A will produce B, you're screwed. Reliable technology is built on the assumption that things will happen the same way every time. Take that trust away, and you have no foundation to stand on. That is why it is sometimes so difficult for engineers to understand how people work.

However, the talk reminded me how important social relations are, because they dictate the use of technology long after the technology is on the ground.

2) Having a Nigerian or two on the panel is a good idea. There were at least three native Nigerians in the audience, all with respectable positions and vocations. The third panelist spoke for about 10 minutes after Jack and Joe, painting a very grim picture of future Nigeria if current political currents cause an explosion and fracture the country (particularly if the North and South become at odds). In the Q&A session, all three Nigerians actively refused this hypothesis and demonstrated that the supposed North/South divide was not as important as the panelist thought. One of them said, "I am sitting here next to my friend, and he is from the South and I am from the North. We are getting along fine - Nigeria will not split as you say." Another stood up on his soap box for a good five minutes, proclaiming what he thought very vehemently, saying, "Shell needs to earn the trust of the people. If the people trust that Shell is working for their good, they will stand up and FIGHT to protect Shell's assets in Nigeria!"

Look out, the Nigerians are in the house!!!

3) Working in developing countries is very different than working in developed countries. People don't always behave decently and people are motivated differently. Also, working in a system where a small group of elites rule the majority of the population and own all the wealth is extremely difficult when you're used to an American or UK system.

4) Don't criticize unless you have a solution, or will admit that you don't have a solution. Criticizing just for the sake of pointing out how awful the other person's efforts or ideas are is not helpful unless you can offer a better alternative.

5) Money does not solve all the world's problems. Just because Shell has quite a bit of money does not mean that they can magically solve problems, nor even that they should be required to solve problems. They are a business, just like Apple or UPS is. They (or their shareholders) should be able to decide what they do with their own money.

So there you go: my synopsis of the evening (albeit a rather skewed one I'm sure). I am very glad I joined Teresa and expanded my horizons, and hope to continue doing so.

1 comment:

  1. One of my classmates just delivered a presentation on offshore oil-rig platform security. He mentioned two incidents regarding Shell and Nigeria. Apparently, the MEND group is utilizing increasingly complex tactics for their assaults.

    There is some new technologies inbound that might change the situation. One if a relatively autonomous UAV that patrols the proximity of the platform. It is called ScanEagle:

    There is also a very advanced radar in the works that can detect swimmers (yes, swimmers!) out to something like 2 km away.

    Personally, I'd like to see the implementation of an LRAD system ( or, better yet, Raytheon's Active Denial System (

    I'm all for social solutions, but that doesn't mean that technological solutions should be neglected either.