New Internationalist

Pirates! Oil companies are stoking hysteria to line their pockets


‘Skiffs’ are no match for military vehicles. Photo: Official U.S. Navy Imagery, under a CC license.

This week the Combating Piracy Conference has been taking place in London, behind closed doors. This industry-organized event brings together representatives from European Union, NATO and oil and shipping companies.

At a time when austerity is cutting into the public purse, and the armed forces, oil and shipping companies have been using the conference to call for military resources to be allocated to protecting their own commercial interests.

And it’s not so hard for them to do. In the lexicography of evil the word ‘pirate’ comes just below ‘terrorist’. The ‘war on piracy’ fits a familiar trope – with a clear enemy, against which any amount of force is acceptable.

The reality is more complex. Even at its height, fewer than one per cent of tankers travelling through the Gulf of Aden were hijacked, and the number is now far lower. Yet British oil companies have managed to exaggerate the dangers for shipping off the coast of Somalia and pressed government ministers into granting them a vast, hidden military subsidy, physically embodied in Navy frigates, drones and helicopters.

Since 2008, when the crude tanker the Sirius Star was hijacked, a vast area of the North-West Indian ocean, in particular the Gulf of Aden, has been heavily militarized. Warships, helicopters and drones patrol the ocean creating an intense naval deployment that can easily overpower the small and basic ‘skiffs’ used by Somali pirates.

The causes of piracy in the regions are varied. They include: the heavy US military presence in the area and support for corrupt warlords; the loss of local fisherfolk livelihoods due to  illegal over-fishing by international trawlers; and the dumping of toxic waste by European companies in the sea off the Somali coast.

On the agenda at the conference was Vessel Protection Detachments (VPDs). Oil and shipping industries have been lobbying for the British Navy to provide teams of military personnel, so called VPDs, aboard commercial vessels – effectively acting as private security guards.

Some other countries are already letting corporations use their military personnel on ships. The Dutch government plans to deploy 100 VPD teams of ten people each, at the estimated cost of $29 million. The shipping companies will only pay half, effectively gaining a subsidy of $14.5 million.

Since 2008 Merchant Navy Liaison Officers (MNLOs) have been seconded from companies to work in the Ministry of Defence’s Northwood HQ within the EU Atalanta anti-piracy operation. In November 2010, 12 MNLOs were awarded European Defence medals for their role with the Royal Navy as part of Operation Atalanta. Of these 12 merchant navy officers, 9 worked for oil companies like BP and Shell, or in oil and gas transportation companies (often owned by oil majors like Exxon).

The companies boast of their generosity in providing staff free of charge, but the industry reaps huge rewards from these secondments as their employees have influence over deployment tactics, ensuring that the British Navy are always correctly positioned to protect their ships.

Oil companies have talked-up the threat of piracy to influence specific military operations and spending priorities. Yet until now, the role of oil and gas companies in the militarization of the Gulf of Aden has received little attention. This is partly because debate focuses upon pirates as a pernicious evil that threatens vital national interests – in particular the supply of oil and gas. In reality, hardly any of the energy from the Gulf of Aden is destined for Britain and it is corporate rather than national interests that the Navy is defending. However, emboldened by their influence over military policy, companies are now hyping pirate attacks taking place in the Gulf of Guinea off West Africa and demanding a similar military response.

Although piracy off Somalia has included violence and led to a loss of lives, the response advocated by the oil industry is not about protecting people.

Knee-jerk military responses place everybody at greater risk. Instead we need a more careful examination of the actual dangers of piracy and how far they can be tackled by vessels taking self-protective measures rather than relying on public subsidies. Resources could be more effectively used to address the underlying root causes of poverty, conflict and pollution.

Emma Hughes is a campaigner with Platform, an arts, activism and research organization focusing on the social, economic and environmental impacts of the global oil industry.

For more information see Platform’s report
A Secret Subsidy.

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