From Piper Alpha to Piper Darvo

 PIPER DARVO: From The Province of The Cat

On the night of the 6th and 7th of July 1988 the Piper Alpha oil production platform, 120 miles north-east of Aberdeen in the North Sea, exploded killing 167 men. Sixty-one workers escaped and survived, and thirty bodies were never recovered. The Piper Alpha remains the world’s worst offshore oil disaster in terms of loss of life. In 1991 the Piper Alpha Memorial Garden was opened in Hazelhead Park in Aberdeen featuring an iconic sculpture by Sue Jane Taylor and 167 roses planted, one for each of the lost. The memorial rose garden was intended to function as a secluded spot where families of the disaster victims, and all of those who had suffered through the oil industry’s malpractices, could come to reflect and to contemplate. Some of the bodies that were recovered in 1988 could not be identified, and the ashes from these were buried inside the granite plinth that supports the memorial. The ashes of several survivors who have subsequently died have also been scattered on the site making the Piper Alpha Memorial Garden sacred ground for many.

But this may be about to change. Yesterday, 29th of June 2022, the Aberdeen City Council are meeting to decide whether to accept the proposal by the Pound for Piper Trust to revamp the Piper Alpha Memorial Garden and to re-develop it as the ‘North Sea Memorial Garden’ and as “a place that the oil industry can be proud of. If this revamp is successful, if the Aberdeen City Council approve it, then it removes the strong association of the space with the disaster. Pat Ballantyne, whose late husband Bob was a survivor of the Piper Alpha catastrophe, has said,

I was involved in helping Pound For Piper get charitable status in 2012. The original plan from two offshore workers was to ask every offshore worker to donate £1 towards cleaning the memorial and tidying the rose garden. Unfortunately, Talisman (the oil company who then owned the Piper Bravo, the replacement platform) decided to become involved and the two workers were keen for this to happen, so I had no option but to resign, just days after charitable status was granted.”

On the 18th of May this year the Pound for Piper Trust told STV that it had made no attempt to consult with the families and survivors who were affected by the disaster about the revamp, in spite of the fact that the Trust’s plans appear to have been in progress for some years. In the same interview they said it was because a consultation process would have taken an inordinately long time. From what I can discover the appeal for funds by the Pound For Piper Trust appears to be aimed primarily at the oil companies themselves. The fact that the Pound For Piper Trust and Oil and Gas UK share an office would facilitate this. It appears that who pays the piper does call the tune. Celebrating oil companies – the very bodies that caused the Piper Alpha disaster – was never the aim of those who fought long and hard to have the memorial rose garden at Hazelhead created. There is nothing Occidental Oil, the owners of the Piper Alpha in 1988, or any oil company for that matter, has anything to be proud of when it comes to the North Sea. Profit is all – humanity and the state of the planet are not a priority.

The Piper Alpha Memorial Garden was completely overhauled less than ten years ago. Currently, the original memorial is relegated to a single sentence in the middle of the sign at the entrance that does not attempt to explain the tragic events of July 6th and 7th 1988On this new sign there is a long list of sponsors which, you might think, is hardly appropriate given that this is a memorial to the victims of a disaster caused by oil companies. One of the sponsors on the sign is the Wood Group, who lost more men on the Piper than any of the other companies yet who refused to contribute when the families were trying to fundraise for the 1991 memorial.

Pat Ballantyne has said,

Raising funds was problematic and took a very long time. Of the 28 companies who lost men in the disaster, only 21 contributed, most sending donations of around £50, with one sending £2000. The families were left to source funding and also to contribute to it themselves. This took many months. The families, including my own, fought long and hard for this monument and garden and paid for it to be built.

The business of “raising funds” was never an issue for Occidental Oil who walked out of the North Sea well rewarded for their services to tragedy, murder and pollution. The total insured loss was about £1.7 billion, making it one of the costliest man-made catastrophes ever. Out of it came the brand new Piper Alpha platform which Occidental quickly sold to Elf who then sold it to Talisman. As is normal in the oil industry everybody else is to blame when things go wrong. Occidental initially tried to pin the blame for the Piper disaster on two platform workers. But this was subsequently overturned after the smear was exposed by a BBC Frontline Scotland documentary in November 1988.

This is typical “darvo” behaviour which is employed regularly by industrial oil. In legal slang “darvo” is when you deny, attack and reverse victim and offender. The perpetrator or offender may deny the behavior, attack the individual doing the confronting, and reverse the roles of victim and offender such that the perpetrator assumes the victim role and turns the true victim – or the whistle blower or the oil rig worker – into an alleged offender. This occurs, for instance, when an actually guilty perpetrator, such as Occidental Oil, assumes the role of “falsely accused” and attacks the accuser’s credibility and blames the accuser of being the perpetrator of a false accusation. This is how Big Oil re-writes history. As the shenanigans with the Piper Alpha Memorial Garden shows, we no longer have the Piper Alpha, but more accurately we have the Piper Darvo.

The Piper Alpha represents the human price of oil and we will continue to pay it until oil companies are forced to recognise their environmental responsibilities. But don’t expect that to happen any time soon. Shell and BP made £12.3 billion in the first three months of this year alone. For them war is good. The cost of living crisis is good. The fuel price-hike is good. And this Tory government is very good. This week the Tories are rushing through a consultation which will mean that oil companies will be able to reduce the amount of “Windfall Tax” they pay. The UK taxes oil and gas company profits far lower than most of our European neighbours. The “Windfall Tax” needs to be increased and made permanent, not reduced. As things stand now, energy companies will be able to reduce the tax they pay if they invest more in polluting fossil fuels. This is called the ‘investment allowance’. More “darvo”.

Oil and gas companies are expanding production less than a year since pledging to target net zero carbon emissions. Last February analysis by the campaign group ShareAction showed that 25 banks that signed up to reduce emissions have provided $33bn (£24bn) in loans and other financing to 50 companies with large oil and gas expansion plans. The oil companies include America’s ExxonMobil, which has tried to defy shareholder demands to cut emissions, state-owned oil company Saudi Aramco and London-listed Shell and BP whose profits continue to rise as the majority of the world’s population suffers. Since 2016, the European banks have provided financing worth $406bn. Rishi Sunak might kid us all on that a one off “Windfall Tax” on oil company profits will help solve the cost of living crisis and spiralling fuel costs, when in fact both his government and Big Oil are creating the crisis. Classic “darvo”.

There is no shortage of former oil company scientists, lobbyists and public relations strategists who will lay bare, for example, how the US’s biggest petroleum firm, Exxon, and then the broader petroleum industry, moved from attempting to understand the causes of global warming to a concerted campaign to hide the making of an environmental catastrophe. All oil companies and corporations have a playbook for the methods they use to deny science, sell lies, and literally when you consider the Piper Alpha, make a killing.

The world’s biggest oil and gas companies, including Shell, Exxon and Gazprom, are projected to spend €857 billion on new oil and gas fields by 2030. This could grow to a staggering €1.4 trillion by 2040, according to new research from Global Witness and Oil Change International. All 20 of the companies investigated by the two NGOs claim to support the Paris Agreement goal of keeping global warming below the critical 1.5C threshold. They will tell us that their “Targets must align with no/low-overshoot 1.5°C transition pathways as specified by credible science-based climate scenarios” or that “We are committed to working with our customers to achieve a transition towards a thriving low carbon economy.” That particular piece of greenwash came for HSBC, but no matter what they say they don’t mean it – its is all bullshit. It is all “darvo”: deny, attack and reverse victim and offender. Then watch the priceometer whirl round.

The only good thing – other than the Memorial Garden – to come out of the Piper Alpha disaster was the formation of the Offshore Industry Liaison Committee (OILC) which was an attempt to set up a union for all off-shore workers. Unfortunately the STUC would not recognise the OILC because other unions were concerned that the OILC would attract their members. Paradoxically the only organisation to recognise the OILC was Margaret Thatcher’s government. As a result the OILC is now a branch of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT), having agreed to merge in April 2008. How deeply ironic is it that in the mid-1980’s Thatcher used to rant on about how the miners’ strike was led by a small band of revolutionaries whose ultimate aim was to bring down civil society as “we know it”, and now it is the current Tory government who are the “revolutionaries” determined to destroy everything we know and it is the unions, the RMT for example, who are trying to protect what is good and useful in civil society as well as their members rights and welfare. They do it on behalf of us all.

The Albanian writer and academic, Lea Ypi, recently noted (The Guardian, Saturday 4th June) that,

“Hope is a moral duty – we have to act as though there is the chance of things going in a way that is favourable to what we want to achieve. If we were nihilistic, we couldn’t uphold that sense of duty. Freedom is also an awareness of duty, the thought you can do your duty however hard it is. The inner moral dimension gives me the foundation from which to criticise society. We live in a world of asymmetric power relations at all levels in which there is an exercise of power by the powerful and those who are weaker and more vulnerable are the passive recipients of that power. That dynamic of power relations is fundamentally inimical to freedom.”

When it comes to issues like the re-framing of the Piper Alpha Memorial Garden I am reminded of a line from “Oideachadh Ceart agus Dàin Eile/Proper Schooling and Other Poems” by Aonghas MacNeacail,

it wasn’t history but memory

which sums up the cruel events of July 6th and 7th 1988 perfectly. We cannot have our memory “darvo’d” by oil companies. Hope, indeed, is a moral duty. Especially now that that the complicated but vitally necessary journey to the referendum on Scottish independence has begun and we can begin the process of freeing ourselves from being possessed, exploited and impoverished. Independence will not necessarily make our lives better. But it will make our lives possible. Those lost on the Piper Alpha 34 years ago deserve no less.

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Comments (4)

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  1. Meg says:

    I’m sure if a petition was raised to maintain and support the original funtion of the memorial it would get well supported…
    Thankyou for drawing attention to this…

  2. SleepingDog says:

    The modern artform of virtual reality is a candidate for memorialising such events:

  3. Colin Kirkwood says:

    Thank you, George. This is so informative, analytical and unveiling of history and reality. Darvo is my new word of today. And the duty to hope, and not despair, is the moral lesson I need to implement.

  4. 220701 says:

    I’ve never experienced Hazelhead Park, but I have experienced the exquisite Johnston Gardens, which incorporates into its aesthetic a memorial to the 16 workers who died when helicopter Flight 85N was lost over the North Sea in 2009.

    One of the Council leaf-blowers at the site told me that the memorial was paid for by North Sea Flight 85N Memorial Fund, which was set up by Oil and Gas UK. The fund raised £370,000, of which £40,000 was used to commission and provide for the maintenance of the artwork and the remaining £330,000 was distributed in memoriam to eleven charities chosen by the workers’ families.

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