‘Cite du Petrole’: A Rare Snapshot of Big Oil’s Glory Days
The glossy “corporate social responsibility” pages of an oil major’s website are a heroic but stilted effort to resist the barrage of hostile public opinion towards ‘big oil’ (boo ,hiss), an industry which has become a byword for underhand dealings, pilfering and dishonesty. However it has taken the discovery of little-known documentary Cite du Petrole to remind me that this vitriolic reaction to the sector was by no means always the case.
This short film by Marc Wolfensberger charts the experiences of the first Western film crew allowed access to Neft Dashlari (or ‘Oil Rocks’), a colossal floating oil platform off the coast of Azerbaijan commissioned by egocentric son of the Caucasus Stalin in 1949 as the largest offshore platform ever built. Today the film crew finds this triumph of Soviet engineering falling apart at the seams and captures a deep if picturesque loneliness amid the derricks and dilapidated apartment blocks. However when questioned by the crew about the past glory days of their floating city, those elderly Bakuvians hardy enough to have stuck around tell quite a different story. Theirs is one of intense pride and exhilaration rather than the straightforward condemnation reserved for ‘big oil’ today.
One pragmatic elderly ‘babushka’ interviewed is in good company when she admits that she came to live on the platform twenty years ago almost exclusively on the basis of greater earning potential. However signs announcing Oil Rocks as “the Eighth Wonder of the World” hint at the significance of the project as a showcase for Soviet technological progress and a new model for living. This message rings out from scratchy propaganda films showing laughter spilling from the breakfast room and glamorous visits from the stars of the Bolshoi Theatre, no less. The vision is of something beyond a mere sprawling workplace; a micro-society and community built around cinemas, cultural palaces and lemonade factories; a bustling communal utopia. This project of course formed part of the great Soviet progress narrative echoed in posters, films and Pravda articles across the vast Union for decades.
In Baku in particular oil has always had a significance that reaches well beyond pure economics. The discovery of oil kicked off the late 19th century boom that continues to shape contemporary Baku today. Moreover, in Soviet times the city was the cradle of the Union’s oil industry and produced 72% of all oil used in the war effort. This makes it not just a driver of the economy, but also a particularly noteworthy example of the heroicized Soviet war veteran.
In 2009 we find the picture looking quite different. A palpable weariness now seems to pervade, with the resident chef at Oil Rocks shown jadedly stirring chicken pieces in a vast pot as if aware that he and his neighbours are all living in a surreal time warp. The residents even admit that they have stopped celebrating birthdays as they once did.
So how did ambitious projects like ‘Oil Rocks’ fall from grace? How did the face of global progress and a more prosperous future become the industry we all love to hate? It is no secret that the oil industry has a critical and growing image problem, exacerbated by all manner of embarrassing Wikileaks revelations about prominent oil majors getting up to no good in fragile petro-states. In the case of Azerbaijan, leaked diplomatic cables such as this one don’t help their cause, throwing around accusations from “mild blackmail” to outright theft since BP and the Aliyev government entered into an unholy alliance in the Caspian in 1994. All of this of course pales into insignificance in the face of the royal thumping the global press has given BP since Deepwater Horizon, and subsequent leaked reports of similar blundering and negligence in Azerbaijan itself.
To further compound their problems, despite Lewis Hamilton being desperately wheeled into the recent 20th World Petroleum Congress in Doha, the oil industry just isn’t that ‘sexy’. Even a flying visit to Baku by her majesty’s favourite secret service agent couldn’t help turn things around by adding a touch of glamour to Azerbaijan’s rusty old rigs.
But the reality is that the reason that the sinking Atlantis at ‘Oil Rocks’ continues to soldier on into the 21st century is that it still produces a sizeable portion of Azerbaijan’s oil output, a resource widely seen as the key not only to economic progress but also to Europe’s energy security dilemma. Unlike the gritty residents of offshore Baku, somewhere among the muddle of intrigue and spills we seem to have lost sight of this prime function of oil as a lifestyle enabler until something better comes along.
There has been a lot of water under the bridge since the platforms at ‘Neft Dashlari’ were first built of course, and climate change and the urgent need for renewable sources of energy are an inconvenient but very urgent reality. However this documentary gives a glimpse of how swiftly the mighty can fall.