IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Algerian attack puts focus on worker security

Image: A worker is seen at the Zarzaitine gas field in In Amenas, 1,600 km southeast of Algiers
A worker is seen at the Zarzaitine gas field in In Amenas, 1,600 km southeast of Algiers January 22, 2013.Louafi Larbi / X01874
/ Source: The New York Times

The gas complex in Algeria that came under attack last week, like scores of oil and gas fields around the globe, had been a world apart from the country that surrounded it, an oasis of relative luxury in a nation emerging from poverty.

Security was a constant preoccupation, as it is with other fields in the many politically unstable parts of the world where foreign oil companies take big chances for big gain: Iraq, Nigeria and Libya, to name a few. The Algerian Army escorted the workers anytime they left the sprawling compound, to and from the airport or as they headed to distant wells where they sometimes saw nomads crossing the desert on camels.

Now energy companies’ use of these far-flung outposts staffed by expatriates is being scrutinized as never before. The bloody, four-day hostage siege at the In Amenas facility in eastern Algeria prompted at least one worker who escaped to question whether more could have been done to rebuff the attack. And analysts say the catastrophic failure could change the way the oil industry protects such compounds throughout the region, where Islamist militants who revile the West are active, just as the State Department has had to rethink security after the attack on the diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya.

The attack in Algeria has already led oil companies there to evacuate hundreds of workers temporarily and eventually could lead some companies to pull out of especially volatile countries. But analysts said the siege was not likely to fundamentally reshape the industry, which has a long history of making money in countries in the throes of upheaval and even war (including one in Algeria), and where workers with a taste for traveling the world — and the hazard pay they earn — have long put aside fears of kidnapping and death.

“This attack is highlighting in a ghastly way the security concerns around the global energy infrastructure on which the world depends,” the oil historian Daniel Yergin said. “Security has been a very big concern over the last two decades, and security is now an even bigger concern. But that doesn’t mean their work will stop."

The attack in the desert has opened a rare window on a world few outside the oil industry know: the scores of oil and gas fields around the globe where foreign and local workers mix, sometimes uneasily, in vast compounds ringed by security fencing that are a strange mix of privilege and privation.

Many are in parts of the world where political problems outside the camp walls add to natural hazards: blinding sandstorms, winter cold severe enough to shatter metal and tropical diseases in areas where medical care is spotty at best. To keep their cloistered workers focused, companies often splurge on such amenities as swimming pools in the desert (In Amenas has one), steaks for lunch and air-conditioned gyms.

Food flown in from Japan
At some camps, the Japanese companies that specialize in plant construction had their own Japanese-style communal bath, and had their food flown in from Japan. In Amenas had no bath, but the Japanese workers there ate separately from both the locals and other foreigners, with a chef trained in Japanese cuisine catering to them.

“It’s a better way to live than in a hotel, but it’s not home and never will be,” said Pat Campbell, a longtime executive with Superior Energy Services, who has worked in North Africa and the Middle East since the 1960s and was a crucial technician in taming the burning Kuwaiti oil fields after the Persian Gulf war. “You cannot help but chuckle when you are sipping homemade bourbon by the pool, but there you are in the desert.”

The men (and some women) who sign up for assignments at the fields are generally adventurers, people able to put up with, or even thrive on, the lifestyle in the camps. The pay and the fast track to corporate success such postings can lead to does not hurt; industry insiders say that top managers can earn $250,000 or more a year. That can go a long way when food and lodging for half the year (they generally work 28 days on and 28 off) is paid for.

Victor Lovelady, a 57-year-old contract worker from Houston, was one of those who died, his family believes, in the final battle waged by Algerian soldiers to take back the camp. His brother Michael said Victor’s goal had been to earn enough at In Amenas to retire early.

“He chose to do the job for the salary,” he said. “All the oil workers go over there to be able to retire. Everyone knows that.”

But family members said that Mr. Lovelady had also been drawn to the work after a hunting trip in Africa 10 years ago.

“He loved Africa; I don’t know why, but he did,” said his daughter, Erin, who fought back tears at her uncle’s house in Nederland, Tex., where the family held a news conference. “He was so excited to go there.”

Another worker who died, Rokuro Fuchida, a Japanese manager with JGC Corporation, one of the companies operating at In Amenas, described on his Facebook page his feelings about leaving Saudi Arabia for Algeria.

“I work around the world to see the glittering nighttime skies of foreign lands,” he wrote. “I look forward to seeing the starry sky above the desert.”

A Romanian named Liviu Floria, 45, who survived in a bold escape, took pains in an interview on Tuesday to set himself apart from the thrill seekers attracted to the fields. He said he went because his job paid five times as much as he was making in Romania, and because he hoped to send his daughter to college in Britain.

He talked about what made camp life fun: poker games he said were led by British colleagues, and soccer matches that sometimes pitted the British against the Romanians, and sometimes the expatriates against the Algerians.

As oil companies struggle to figure out where they need to beef up security, analysts say industry leaders will be watching for indications about why the Algerian camp was overrun after years when it and other Algerian facilities were considered well enough protected to discourage attack by militants in the region.

One employee who worked at the facility said, “Security was poor, not to the required standard,” but BP, one of the companies that operates the plant, said the Algerian government was responsible for securing its exterior.

More costly protections
If the Islamists have increased their capabilities, said David L. Goldwyn, a former State Department energy envoy who now has a consulting firm, Goldwyn Global Strategies in Washington, oil companies will need to invest in more costly protections, including electronic detection systems. He says the industry will raise particular concerns about countries like Libya, where the governments are weak and the companies already feel they are on their own.

“The industry is accustomed to working in dangerous places like Nigeria,” he said. “But there is a limit. If they don’t think they can protect their people they will exit, as Chevron did in Sudan.”

Still, the industry has built its reputation on a willingness to go almost anywhere, especially for the giant fields known as elephants, despite political and other risks. History proves it.

In 1951, as Iran moved to nationalize the oil industry, Tehran gave the last remaining British Anglo-Iranian oil company employees at the Abadan refinery a week to clear out. As Mr. Yergin described in his book “The Prize,” the employees and their families gathered in front of the Gymkhana Club with their pets, tennis rackets and golf clubs. A British cruiser carried them upriver to the Iraqi city of Basra, as the ship’s band defiantly played the “Colonel Bogey March” (later the theme for the movie “The Bridge on the River Kwai”).

While that event was the beginning of the end of an era of undisputed European dominance of the Middle East oil fields, it did not stop BP — Anglo-Iranian’s successor — from oil and gas work in countries like Iraq and Algeria.

And even as Algerian authorities scoured the damaged In Amenas facility for more bodies, there were already some workers eager to help the facility get up and running again.

“I’m thinking now, to have been attacked like that, it’s going to be a long time before it happens again,” said one veteran energy worker, who asked not to be identified because his company had told employees not to speak to the news media after the takeover. “I don’t think I would have a problem to go working there.”

This story first appeared in The New York Times under the headline "Algerian Attack Puts Focus on Worker Security."