The two-grand-a-night call girls are wandering lonely and disconsolate through the Wynn casino, victims of the recession. Badpenny, dressed full-on Bond Girl, is losing nickels in the slots and humming Elvis tunes.
Badpenny’s assigned job here is to look good and get information. She’s good at her job. A tipsy plaintiffs’ lawyer is telling her, “A woman as beautiful as you should be told she’s beautiful every five minutes.” His nose dips slowly toward her cleavage. I didn’t know there were guys who still talked like that. Well, good. Take notes, Penny.
My own assignment is to hook up with Daniel Becnel. Becnel is just about the best trial lawyer in the United States. He doesn’t have an office in Vegas or New York. He puts out his shingle at the ass end of Louisiana, at the far end of the bayous, where he defends Cajuns like himself, and that includes the wildcatters out on the Gulf Coast oil rigs.
I have just come back from the Amazon jungle, where I was tracking Chevron’s operations. Chevron Petroleum monopolizes deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. Maybe Becnel and I could trade information. It’s April 20, 2010. Hitler’s birthday and my ex-wife’s.
I found Becnel — far from the gaming tables and looking unpleasantly sober.
There was an explosion back home. A rig blew out and was burning. The Coast Guard called him. They want his permission to open an emergency safety capsule they’d found floating in the Gulf. The Guard assumed maybe a dozen of his clients who had been working on the Deepwater Horizon platform were inside, cooked alive.
The sound on the TV above the bar is off. The high, black rolls of smoke rising out of the BP oil rig remind me of my own office when it burned.
Something is very wrong in this picture. All I can see are a couple of fireboats pointlessly shpritzing the methane-petroleum blaze with water. What the hell? Where are the Vikoma Ocean Packs and the RO-Boom? Where is the Sea Devil?
Because of my screwy career path, I happen to know a lot about oil spill containment. And I know a lot about bullshit. This isn’t spill containment, this is bullshit.
Here is a skyscraper on fire, and the firemen show up with two bottles of seltzer.
How could they do this? How could British Petroleum, the oil company with the green gas stations, with the solar panels on the cover of their annual report, that kissed environmental groups full on the mouth by breaking ranks with Exxon to decry global warming . . . how could Green BP savage and slime our precious Gulf Coast?
The answer: BP had lots of practice.
By the next day, CNN’s Anderson Cooper and an entire flock of reporters ran down to the Gulf to take close-ups of greased birds and to interview that mush-mouthed fraud, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal.
But I know something the other reporters don’t know: The real story about the BP blowout is in the opposite direction, eight thousand miles north.
I have in my files a highly confidential four-volume investigation on the grounding of the Exxon Valdez in Alaska, written two decades ago. The report concluded,
“Despite the name ‘Exxon’ on the ship, the real culprit in destroying the coastline of Alaska is British Petroleum.”
I have a copy because I wrote it.
That was my last job. The job that defeated me: after years as a detective-economist, investigator of corporate fraud and racketeering, this was the case that ruined the game for me.
The important thing, the hidden story calling me north, is that the Deepwater Horizon disaster was born right there on the Alaska tanker route. Here’s why: BP did the crime but didn’t do the time. Exxon got away pretty cheap, sure, but BP walked away stone free, not one dime from its treasury, not one drop of oil blotting its green reputation. So I quit.
But for now, from the casino, Badpenny is booking me a flight…
Somewhere off the coast of Azerbaijan
Just after leaving Las Vegas, Badpenny received an e-mail marked “Re: Your Palast Donation,” coming from, weirdly, a ship floating in the Caspian Sea near BP’s Central Azeri oil drilling platform, that is, somewhere off the coast of Azerbaijan in Central Asia. It read,
“Would not be wise for me to communicate via Official IT system.”
We replied, “Understood,” and waited.
When the Deepwater Horizon well blew out in the Gulf, BP acted shocked. Just six months before the Gulf explosion, a BP vice president testified to Congress that the company had drilled offshore for fifty years without a major blowout. When the big well did blow in the Gulf, the company said that nothing like this had ever happened before. That is, nothing they reported.
Weeks after we received the first message from the ship in the Caspian Sea, we located our terrified source in a port town in Central Asia; and he told us BP’s claim to Congress was a load of crap. He himself had witnessed another deep water platform blowout. He seemed really nervous. And for good reason.
I didn’t know where the hell I’d get the budget to get to Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, but Badpenny booked it without asking. “I know you’re going, so let’s not discuss it.
Named Book of the Year on BBC Newsnight Review, you can get a signed copy of Vultures’ Picnic: In Pursuit of Petroleum Pigs, Power Pirates, and High-Finance Carnivores with a tax deductible donation to support our work.
Vultures’ Picnic charts the course of Palast’s quest to bring the truth of the BP disaster to light as he and his team of journalist-detectives go from the streets of Baku, where Palast searches for a brown valise full of millions, to a small Eskimo village, where he hears firsthand of the depth of deceit and heartbreaking environmental devastation, to a burnt-out nuclear reactor in Japan, to Chevron’s operations in the Amazon jungle.
Along the way, Palast and his team see the many other crimes perpetrated by the energy giants of the worlds, the banks that fund their lies, and the governments that turn a blind eye.
The Caspian Sea, 100 Kilometers Offshore
Up until now, when Mother Nature goes homicidal, she gets away with it because some innocent corporation takes the rap. Like BP. At least that’s what you learn by reading the company’s press releases.
Let us remember what first drew me here to this bunghole called Baku. It wasn’t the beaches. Or the Ermenegildo Zegna shoe store. It was the call from Caspian Man, the insider with his cryptic message sent from a vessel floating in the Caspian Sea. If his story checked out, we had the true, hidden cause of the Deepwater Horizon deaths. This was serious business. His info, if corroborated, changes the case of the Deepwater Horizon from tragedy to homicide.
Negligent homicide is an “if only” crime. As in: “If only my stupid cousin had taken the bullets out of the loaded gun before handing it to his violent and deranged brother, the poodle would be alive today.”
If only BP had told us (Congress, safety inspectors, stockholders, the press, or anybody at all) that there had been a violent blow-out at their offshore rig in the Caspian Sea, then the eleven men on the Gulf of Mexico rig would be alive today.
Did our Caspian Man see this blow-out himself, or was it just barroom rumor? The note to Badpenny put his entire career in jeopardy, so that gave his answer some weight. But what did he first see? We arranged a call, safe phone to safe phone. I heard bar noises in the background.
The voice said, “Orange boats in the water.”
That’s the phrase I wanted to hear. An eyewitness. An eyewitness who had been right there. I will never know, and hope I never will know, what it’s like to have just a few minutes to live.
There was Caspian Man’s story and there was BP’s official story, written, I would guess, by someone who wasn’t there to dance cheek to cheek with Death. It all happened on September 17, 2008.
The Official BP Story #1, released that day:
“A gas leak was discovered in the area of a Central Azeri platform this morning.”
By this BP story, it was just Mother Nature farting away, how impolite of her. The gas release was at some rather safe distance from the oil rig.
Then, there was Official BP Story #2. It was tucked into an obscure environment assessment report in 2009:
“A gas release was detected around the CA [Central Azeri] platform in mid-September.”
It was “in the area” in Story #1; now it’s “around.” With each BP story, the gas creeps nearer. Still, it is Mother Nature’s gas, not from BP’s well.
And so, it’s no big deal, no danger. Nevertheless BP, ever concerned about its workers’ safety, ordered an evacuation of the rig.
“As a precautionary measure we suspended all operations on the platform.”
“Precautionary.” In BP’s story, because the leak was not under the platform itself, there was no real danger; but, what the heck, let’s evacuate.
V. S. Naipaul, who won a Nobel Prize for Literature (and Bitterness), once wrote that imperial powers “don’t lie, they elide.” That is, they leave shit out.
Caspian Man says BP left out that the gas was leaking from under the rig, and it was ready to blow sky high. Caspian Man, put it closer, right under the workers. He told me,
“. . . gas leaked outside the main riser, the platform was engulfed in methane. HIGHLY explosive.”
The orange lifeboats were thrown in the water in a panic. The crew was inside a “gas cloud.” Evacuation wasn’t a “precautionary” measure, it was a “Holy shit, we’re gonna die!” measure. Caspian Man said,
“By the grace of God [Ins’Allah], the gas did not ignite so there was no explosion and no loss of life.”
“Engulfed in methane,” exactly the same as the Deepwater Horizon. A quick-thinking captain on Central Azeri ordered the platform to “go dark.” So no lights, no sources of flame, not even a light switch flicked. On the Deepwater Horizon, it is believed that the platform blew when a worker, rather than jump off the rig as others did, began repeatedly to slam the “blowout preventer” switch to cut off the gas burst. A wise move — if the switch worked. It didn’t, and the worker, for his act of heroism, was instantly vaporized.
All 211 workers on Central Azeri got off alive but with “some broken bones” (says Caspian Man) only because an emergency vessel conducted a miraculous escape in a record-setting hour and a half. Badpenny discovered that fact only because the owner of the evacuation ship received a special medal from Baby Baba himself [President Ilham Aliyev, whose father was known as Baba] for the lifesaving event — which, the autocrat seems to have forgotten, didn’t occur.
Now we get to Official BP Story #3. Another one of Badpenny’s all-night romps through Security Exchange Commission filings brought the gas leak still closer to the platform. The company (more American than British) is required by U.S. law to fess up to problems. The officers of the company sign the reports under penalty of perjury.
With the risk of prison eliciting something closer to truth, BP execs finally admit that the gas came up from under the platform.
“On 17 September 2008, a subsurface gas release occurred below the Central Azeri platform.”
BP is inching closer to the truth. But it could still be the fault of that nasty hag Ma Nature passing gas right below BP’s rig.
Remember Naipaul’s dictum: They don’t lie, they elide.
What did they leave out?
This, says Caspian Man: The blowout occurred right after . . .
“. . . a nitrogen cement job.”
Here’s the smoking, exploding gun: Central Azeri blew because BP used an ultra-risky cement mix that sets quickly.
You’ve heard the phrase as exciting as watching cement dry. That’s because it’s so damn slow. Rigs cost a bundle per day to lease or operate — as much as a half million dollars a day. Time is money. So to speed up the Lord’s own way of drying cement (evaporation), BP juices the cement with nitrogen. There’s a risk, of course, but not to the guys ordering the quicky-tricky cement plug with nitrogen.
The Deepwater Horizon widows must care: This was the same cement mix that failed in the Gulf well, causing the Deepwater Horizon to fill with methane and blow itself to hell.
I smell “material omission.” Maybe you can “elide” in London or Baku and the government doesn’t give a damn, but in the United States, where the rule of law still holds on (if only by its fingernails), you can’t just leave shit out that’s important.
BP did not mention the nitrogen in the cement nor the evidence of its failure. Nor did BP mention that the Central Azeri rig filled with methane, and the crew of over two hundred souls were one Lucky Strike away from oblivion.
Is that omission “material”? If so, it could make BP liable for a charge of criminal negligence — or at least a good old horsewhipping. Doubtless, if regulators had learned of this near-deadly blowout using nitrogen-infused cement, the stuff, presumably, would have been banned or controlled. And BP itself would have been banned or controlled.
A lawyer might call it a “homicidal omission.” But I’m not a lawyer, so I’ll leave that conclusion to the suits. Maybe eleven corpses aren’t enough; the law might require an even dozen to make it “material.”
The Riviera Hotel, Baku
I can see you’ve already rushed to judgment: BP’s silence, its cover-up of the Caspian blow-out, of the failure of the cheap crap cement, makes the company guilty guilty guilty. But BP is only guilty if the blow-out actually occurred.
Yes, Caspian Man told me so. One witness and I had to keep him under wraps. But what’s the proof? And how the hell do you cover up a blow-out that came within a matchstick of incinerating two hundred and eleven rig workers without it getting out? Please, Lord, give me one, just one of those 211 evacuees from BP’s Central Azeri platform to agree to go on camera.
We found a talkative rig hand, but suddenly, he … vanished. Poof. No way to reach him. Phones aren’t answered. Friends can’t locate him. Something is happening here, Mr. Jones. Something, someone, has warned the Ministry and BP to keep a lock on the lips of the offshore rig workers.
And something else: We contacted Fatima to contact someone who could contact Zulfie who could contact someone who could contact Natasha [a helpful colleague of a BP operative in Azerbaijan], Leslie The Bagman’s connection. But our fixer told us that Zulfie’s contact said he suddenly had to leave the country on business and who knows when he’d return.
Nobody in Azerbaijan “suddenly” leaves. You need a special permit. You don’t leave until Baby Baba says you leave. Someone had tipped the Baba cops and BP to our story. Some weaselly little Wicked Leaker. A leak could explain the special guest appearance of the security ministry’s Number Two man at the truck-stop diner.
How the hell could they know . . . ?
So we did the only thing we could do. We loaded up our surfing gear bags and headed to the beach.
The idea hit me after our contacts found a second rig worker who confirmed he had escaped from the methane cloud. Our dear Director James had originally messaged the insider to meet us at our hotel . . . to what? To be escorted up the stairs by Larry, Moe, and Curly? Why not just throw a noose around his neck?
That’s when I thought of surfing. I’d seen a small hotel called The Riviera right on the seafront as we drove back from the desert. I suggested we get our fixer to rent a room for “her friends from Europe who need a place to dump their gear” and maybe crash for a night. The fixer would then return in two hours with us “surfer dudes” and our driver — Rig Worker #2. Our “driver” would help us bring up our surf gear — lights and cameras — so we could shoot him in shadow framed by the bright light of the blighted sea.
But our “driver” never showed. Calls, then checks by other contacts to his house, produced zero. Then someone answered Rig Worker #2’s cell for him. “He has asked his company for permission to conduct this interview and is waiting for their response.” In other words, he turned us in.
Dear Director was furious. “He shopped us, the fucker!” Yes, he did. And so would I, James. Obviously, they were onto the story before he gave us away. Rig Worker #2 was scared out of his shorts, and with reason. We’re not in Kansas, Toto.
Then that call comes in from our Manager, the twat in London: “I’ve taken a decision.” They really talk like that: taken a decision. We must get out “forthwith.” We are “in danger.”
Bullshit. We are Subjects of Her Majesty’s Empire, and the secret police wouldn’t touch a hair on my head even if I had hair. We are immune and that’s why we’re careless numbskulls.
We are not in danger but we are dangerous to those on the firing line here by our who-the-hell-cares attitude toward a dictator we consider an oaf and a joke, BP’s tool and BP’s fool. We can count on BP itself to keep us safe if only to avoid bad publicity. And then we fly away while some oil worker loses everything he has, and his kids are thrown out of the workers’ housing block.
BP merely has to put three little letters next to his name: NRB — “Not Required Back” on the rig. Never, ever. On any rig ever. And Mirvari gets another beating. Or worse. For us little Anglo-American boys with cameras, this is about as dangerous as Disneyland. But it’s not Disney for the mice left behind when the mousetrap snaps shut and breaks their bones and lives. Yes, Lord Posh Twat of London, empire has its privileges and it makes me want to vomit.
Still in Baku
But we’re not leaving.
That’s when we find out the Security Ministry called our hotel and told them to seize our passports. Our passports with the visa stamps that allowed us in and, more importantly, allow us out.
Not good, not good.
The Ministry police are on the way. “Routine,” they tell us. I bet it is.
I’m killing nervous time looking up the price of Lady Baba’s shoes. And praying. Dear God: You made this mess, so get me the hell out of it.
And, what do you know, He answers! A voice in my head says, If you have already checked out of the hotel, Palast, that is, if the hotel tells the ministry police when they arrive that, sorry, the foreigners have packed up and left hours ago, then the desk clerks are off the hook.
The clerks have figured this out too, so when we leg it down the stairs to request the bill to check out, there’s a charge of $400 added for the use of a sauna and the services of a “masseuse.” James wants to argue but I say, “PAY IT.”
That’s the most expensive massage ever that didn’t have a happy ending.
James unrolls two thousand in Euro notes, and now we have our passports and have checked out. We don’t, however, actually leave the hotel.
I sleep in fits, fully clothed, the passport and visa in the front pocket of my pants.
Airport and out
Made it to the airport. It’s named . . . no points for guessing . . .the Heydar Aliyev Airport. Baba International.
We’re outta here! Only three X-ray machines and checkpoints stand in our way. No problem.
Then there is a problem.
I took James’s suggestion to quickly move my “pen” from a pile of real pens to the middle of my checked luggage.
The cop at Checkpoint One signals me to come over. He shows me the X-ray monitor. Right in the middle, the thick metal camera-pen looks like a gun silencer against my Y-fronts and socks. I pull it out and show that it writes my name. See!
He whispers to our fixer in Azeri: “I know exactly what that is. And it’s illegal.”
Here it comes. Hannukah with Baba, or at least his prison warden. The network won’t help, the U.S. Embassy will just tsk-tsk: Carrying contraband, Mr. Palast? So sorry.
I hate me. Just for some cute film action, I get myself busted.
After this selfish walk down Me Street, I suddenly realized Holy No Goddamn I have the “destroyed” notebook pages on there, a hit parade of our sources. I hate me even more.
Then the young cop puts it back in my suitcase! And he whispers to my translator, “Get rid of this thing before Checkpoint Two because he’ll never make it through.”
Thank the Lord not every grandson of Baba loves his grandpa’s regime. They may carry his riot sticks, but they don’t all want to kiss them.
Thank you thank you thank you thank you.
Now, rather than add a new stupidity to my current stupidity, I do not sneak into a corner to remove the pen — furtive action will be noticed. I kick my baggage over to the second security line . . . then frantically open the case, throw my clothes all over the floor, saying, “Where is it? WHERE IS IT?!”
James knows the routine and tells our translator to open her purse and drop it on the floor. “Drop it?” K asks. James, says, “Right NOW!”
She does and my socks and underpants and medicine kit fly out, piled all over her bag. I pull out my asthma inhaler, say, “PRAISE GOD!” and take a big hit from the empty medicine injector.
I can breath easy now, and carefully replace all my stuff in my bag.
Well, not all. A dirty sock has fallen into K’s purse, which she’s picked up while helping me repack. A dirty sock with a pen inside.
Flying over the Caucasus
So is it bullshit or bull’s-eye?
Just because Caspian Man said the magic words, “nitrogen cement,” can we really conclude that BP deliberately concealed the blow-out and its cause? We had backup from other rig men in Baku, but they had been threatened into silence. So we flew out with a big fat bullet hole in our story. How the hell can I get corroboration that BP was covering up the deadly truth?
It turned out to be ridiculously easy. The stewardess handed it to me: a copy of The Guardian from London with the day’s WikiLeaks release:
02/07/2008 S E C R E T BAKU 000625
Bill Schrader [president of BP Azerbaijan] said that the September 17th shutdown of the Central Azeri (CA) platform, in which the “red button” was pressed after detection of a gas leak on the Central Azeri Platform that led to the evacuation of 211 platform workers off the platform, was the largest such emergency evacuation in BP’s history. Given the explosive potential, BP was quite fortunate to have been able to evacuate everyone safely and to prevent any gas ignition. . . . Due to the blowout of a gas-injection well there was “a lot of mud” on the platform.
[BP] has closed off a “few suspect wells” from which they think a bad cement job caused the leaking gas.
There it is. This gun is smokin’. The official and “S E C R E T” information that, indeed, there was methane about to blow the rig. Furthermore, with the bad cement (“mud”) spewing out all over the platform, the evidence of the blow-out’s cause was literally falling on their heads. It’s a clear confession by BP’s top man to the U.S. State Department.
There’s our corroboration. There’s our answer. But the answer now raises a new, and very uncomfortable, question: Who joined BP in covering up the Caspian blow-out?
Before I became a reporter and had a real job as a racketeering investigator, I learned that conspiracy is no fun without co-conspirators. To share costs, BP brought in Exxon and Chevron as partners in the Caspian. That is why the Embassy was writing to Washington. BP’s U.S. partners were bitching about losing millions while the platform was closed to clear the explosive gas. They wanted President Bush to complain to the UK government, but quietly. The American companies could have sued BP for their losses. But the club clearly thought it prudent to keep silent. That silence is complicity.
Case closed? The embassy cable can’t stand up by itself as evidence of industry fraud. A judge would call it “hearsay.” But with Caspian Man’s eyewitness report and our info on nitrogen in the bad cement, well, in a better world, BP’s brass would be breaking rocks on a chain gang.
The leaked cables explain the honor of the appearance at the café of Murder-meat, Number Two of the secret police. Turns out, The Guardian told BP they were about to release the cables to get BP’s response. BP knew I was on the case, and reasonably assumed I had a copy. Apparently, word went out from BP London, and the whip came down in Baku. But we were clueless about the cables, and, ended up filmless, with not one eyewitness on camera. I lose the James Bond Award again.
And, just to ice the cake, we had the wrong Natasha in our photo. Leslie The Bagman had two Natashas.
I blew the film, but not the story. The story isn’t just about an exploding oil rig, though that’s story enough. In Baku we learned that BP’s money bought something as valuable as the oil itself: silence.
You can hide a terrifying blowout only in a police state. The Contract of the Century is enforced by the Beatings and Jailings and Censorship and Terror of the Century. The Silence of the Century. All facts are crushed under Lady Baba’s Versace heels ($1,200, the ones she wore to the Goodwill Ambassador’s soiree in Paris, April 7, 2007), paid for by BP’s cash for the petro-dictatorship.
In something other than a pretend democracy, there would have been lawsuits and really stupid analysis on NPR, and Sarah Palin saying she drank methane every morning and it’s not a problem. In other words, in a democracy there would have been enough hubbub and hoo-hah that BP couldn’t just get away with it. Save-a-Buck nitrogen cement would certainly be off the oil rig menu. Eleven guys would be alive and the Gulf Coast would at least have more tourists in the casinos.
Democracy is more than voting; it’s having the information to vote.
But before you start marching around your living room couch, singing “God Bless America,” answer this: The U.S. Embassy cabled back to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice about the Caspian blow-out, about the lethal cement mix. Yet our Secretary of State never told us. Did you, Condi?
BP and its American partners concealed the dangerous blow-out, and the powerful co-conspirator: the U.S. government.
So maybe we have to say that the United States is almost a democracy. And less so daily: Since September 11, 2001, the United States has been treating information and informants by using Baba’s system, not Jefferson’s.
Well, at least we still choose our president by the ballot.
Correction: The Embassy cables were dated 2008, when George W. Bush was President. Baby Bush. He wasn’t elected, either. At least not by the voters.
But that’s another book, from another time.
This is an excerpt from Vultures’ Picnic: In Pursuit of Petroleum Pigs, Power Pirates and High-Finance Fraudsters.
My own favorite of all my books, I’ll sign my last copies — I removed it from print — if you make a tax-deductible donation to support our continuing investigations.
Greg Palast (Rolling Stone, Guardian, BBC) is the author of The New York Times bestsellers, Billionaires & Ballot Bandits and the book and documentary,
The Best Democracy Money Can Buy.
His latest film is Vigilante: Georgia's Vote Suppression Hitman
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