At the Skunk Works

R.W. Johnson

  • Fool’s Gold: The Story of North Sea Oil by Christopher Harvie
    Hamish Hamilton, 408 pp, £18.99, October 1994, ISBN 0 241 13352 1

In 1937 a small gas field was discovered near Whitby in Yorkshire. In 1943 in Nazi-occupied Holland drilling began in a search for gas which met success only in July 1959 when the Groningen field was discovered in Friesland. It became clear that Groningen, the world’s second largest gas field, stretched far out into the North Sea and geologists noticed that the strata in which the Dutch deposits were found were actually an undersea extension of a formation which began in Yorkshire. Oil companies began to search the sea and quickly found several sedimentary basins of the sort likely to contain gas and oil. BP rather perilously converted a barge into a makeshift rig, the Sea Gem, which in November 1965 discovered the West Sole gas field off the Norfolk coast. Six days later the Sea Gem capsized with the loss of 13 lives. The search for hydrocarbons in the North Sea led the oil companies into the deepest water and toughest conditions they had ever encountered. In 1964 it was reckoned that North Sea waves never got higher than forty feet, winds never higher than 53 mph. Gradually, bitter experience taught that nothing was ever quite tough enough for the North Sea, that you had to be ready for waveheights of 65-100 feet and wind speeds of 70 mph. The technology became more and more awesome, the rigs huger, the entire scenario more and more futuristic. It was, in Alvarez’s phrase, ‘outer space with bad weather’.

This is the story Christopher Harvie has to tell. His is an immensely important book – astonishingly, there is no other good account in print of the North Sea phenomenon which has changed the world oil market, transformed the British and Norwegian economies and, invisibly, reshaped their political and social life. On top of that, it is full of extraordinary engineering achievements, telephone-book financial numbers and gee-whiz facts. The oil boom has, for example, created Britain’s busiest port, which practically nobody has heard of, Sullom Voe in the Shetlands, and brought in its train such monsters as ‘the biggest movable object on earth’: the central platform of the Ninian field, which had to be towed northwards into position by no fewer than seven tugs. At 601,200 tons the platform was bigger by far than the largest supertanker ever seen. Not a few of the characters the boom brought with it were larger than life too: ex-Governor John Connally of Texas, for example, still scarred from the Kennedy shooting, hustling for oil companies and on the way down to the bankruptcy that broke him, and T. Boone Pickens, the greenmail king, so thrilled with his acquisition of the Mesa field (which he renamed after his wife, Beatrice) that he buzzed Balmoral Castle. Pickens talked like his name sounded, describing the head of the British National Oil Corporation (BNOC), Sir Frank Kearton, as ‘an inside guy at the skunk works’.

Unfortunately, Harvie is an intellectual magpie and his book is irritatingly, or rather maddeningly, written, a series of digressions about every subject under the sun. He cannot bear, for example, to mention Lord Balogh, the Balliol don Harold Wilson recruited as an economic adviser in 1964, without telling us what it was like to be an inter-war Hungarian radical under ‘a sclerotic, semi-fascist regime, brooding over its Habsburg past’, or to talk about Norway without throwing in a series of quick observations on Norwegians (‘devoted to patriotism, ecological uprightness, liberated but worried sex, and downright gloomy alcoholism’). The overall impression of a worrying lack of control serves to undermine confidence in his judgment more generally.

A tougher editor might have reined in Harvie’s habit of picking up subjects, putting them down and then picking them up again, so that nothing ever gets treated in properly consecutive fashion. It is, for example, an extremely difficult task to piece together a basic chronology of North Sea development from Harvie’s text, different bits of it being squirrelled nuttily away in little caches throughout the book.

Even before the Sea Gem found gas off Norfolk the British Government rushed to reach a deal with Norway over boundaries. In its indecent haste it probably gave away more than it needed to, allowing the Norwegians (and later the Germans) to take concessions in what turned out to be the precious Ekofisk area. In 1966 the Burmah Oil vessel, Ocean Prince, found oil off Cromer but nothing was said about this (the find was anyway too small to exploit): the companies played down their activity and tried to suggest that they were doing the Government a favour by prospecting at all in such inclement waters, while the Government seems to have been naive and ignorant. In 1969, right on the border with British waters, the Norwegians struck the Ekofisk field with its 2.8 billion barrels of reserves and Amoco quietly found the Montrose field. The next year BP discovered the 2.5 billion barrel Forties field but kept it dark for over a year. In 1971 the Auk, Argyll and Brent fields (the latter a two billion barrel giant) were discovered, and though Brent was hushed up for a year, word was now out.

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