A New Tax on Oil Companies

This report has been doing the rounds of the oil and gas journals, but is strangely absent from the mainstream media:

GORDON BROWN TO PROPOSE NEW TAX ON OIL COMPANIES AT G20

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown will propose a new tax on oil companies when heads of state gather at the G20 summit next month, our London correspondent has learned from a leaked report.

The proposal would see tax on oil production replaced by a tax on each email generated by oil companies in a move which could raise over 1 trillion USD for depleted global treasuries.  Critics see the move as counterproductive at a time when so many emails are being generated and said it would almost certainly lead to resignations from middle managers who are already under pressure to change their ways following the collapse of the oil price.  However, an aide to Gordon Brown said this in an exclusive interview with our correspondent under condition of anonymity:

“The move is entirely reasonable and in line with the changes already underway in the oil and gas industry.  Oil companies have moved away from their traditional role of extracting hydrocarbons and on most measures their primary business is now generating emails.  It is only natural that the respective tax laws be changed to recognise this fact, and it is unacceptable that oil companies continue to produce so many emails without being subject to tax.”

A report carried out by the Institute for Fiscal Studies showed that oil companies sent a total of 3.7bn emails in 2008, over 90% of which were internal, and most of no use whatsoever.  The report also revealed that more than three in five emails were lazily forwarded unnecessarily, and over half included people who were irrelevant to the information therein, which is being used by some green groups as proof that oil companies are not serious about environmental protection.

Irresponsible

Greenpeace activist Chloe Nosoape said on the organisation’s website that the report “is a clear indication that the oil companies are irresponsible in their use of scarce resources.  Email use has been growing exponentially each year since 1992, and 2008 saw more emails sent than any other year in history, which is simply not sustainable.  The new tax would encourage oil companies to behave more responsibly and give something back to the online communities they are working amongst.” 

Other environmental groups see excessive email use as a major cause of global warming, with still others accusing oil companies of dumping unread emails in the sea which they say is having a serious effect on the breeding patterns of the Pacific Grey Whale.

However, managers in the oil industry are sceptical of the move labelling it a “naked tax grab in an area where we are most vulnerable”, and are concerned about the effect the new tax will have on their operations.  One of the HR Directors of a major oil company interviewed by us said:

“We have spent years encouraging our workforce to send emails to each other rather than dealing face-to-face.  We believe that sending internal emails is a cheaper and more efficient alternative to employing people who have a pleasant personality and are not arrogant tossers.”

Faced with a recruitment crisis across the whole industry as science and engineering graduates shun the oil business in favour of work which does not require flame-retardent coveralls, oil companies have in recent years retreated from the traditional requirement that employees must have an ability to contribute something useful and now simply require that they harbour unshakeable self-importance.  As such, email use in the industry has increased more than in other comparable industries, such as mining which still requires people to actually do something occasionally.  One HSE Manager working for a large oil company told us:

“How can I be expected to go and see people to discuss important matters?  I joined the HSE department because I was universally loathed by everyone I’ve ever come into contact with, and by using email and copying in the higher management each time I could get people to do what was necessary.  I am not sure that communicating directly with people is something we should be encouraging in today’s world.”

A mechanical engineer working in the same company concurs:

“I cannot possibly make a decision until everybody I can think of has had an opportunity to give me their opinion on the situation.  Sometimes this amounts to over 40 different people.  It is simply not practical for me to go around and speak to these people individually.”

**** himself

Reaction to the news from oil company executives has been mixed, with one CEO allegedly screaming “well if Gordon Brown doesn’t want us to invest in the UK then he can go **** himself”, whereas the board of another international oil company has reportedly said that they favoured dialogue and were happy for tax officials to help themselves to whatever they thought was fair in the hope of favourable treatment in the future.  However, it appears that some oil companies are taking the proposal seriously and have already started implementing procedures with the aim of reducing email usage.  One operations manager said he would be encouraging his employees to make decisions all on their own, to stop trying to brown-nose senior management by copying them on every email which makes them look good, and to ban the use of the reply-all button.

However, not all oil workers are against the proposal.  When our correspondent visited the Association of Geriatrics in the Oil Industry, he found the mood quite upbeat:

“This is excellent news!  For too long we have been required to use email for our correspondence, and this is discrimination against those of us who do not know how to use it.  I am 69 years old, and I have no idea how to switch on a computer, never mind send emails,” said one gentleman, whose 22 year old Thai wife seemed more than proficient on her iPhone.  Another told us:

“When I worked on the Claymore hookup in 1962 we didn’t have email and that was a proper job.  These young people in the business now have no clue, and when we’re all gone the industry will fall apart.”

Asked whether the proposed law could be extended to unnecessarily long meetings, bizarre policies and procedures, and cringeingly bad safety posters, a treasury spokesperson declined to comment.

A Trip to Japan

I’m now back in Sakhalin, a mere 90km from Japan at the closest point, but one might as well be on the moon and the other on Saturn as far as proximity has resulted in similarity.

I went to Japan with an Australian, German, and a Brit who were all experienced snowboarders intent on doing off-piste powder boarding whilst trying to avoid being buried in an avalanche. For my part, I was intent on learning how to ski whilst trying to avoid breaking any limbs or looking like a complete twit. With the exception of that last one, it was a successful trip for all of us.

Regular readers will remember that I had been to Japan last July for a visa run, and thought pretty highly of it, and so I had high expectations of this trip. I wasn’t disappointed. As soon as we got off the aeroplane at Narita airport, one of my friends pointed out that Japan always seems overstaffed: everywhere you look, there are people in impeccable uniforms – always uniforms – standing about helping you out. Even the customs official with dazzling white gloves checking your bags for contraband has the manner of a tour guide. More uniformed people help you towards an enormous door maked “Exit” which opens on its own anyway. Contrast this with Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk where exiting the airport from the baggage area takes you through a set of double doors each no more than two feet wide, one of which is always locked shut, which open inwards into the crowd of people trying to pass through, after which you go down a flight of twelve concrete steps. Who the hell designs an airport entrance which involves a flight of steps?

The overstaffed comment stuck with me. On our first day in Tokyo we witnessed six beaming uniforms blocking the pavement while a car reversed out from a building, just an ordinary office block. Later, when it had started raining, each man pulled on an identical set of white wellies and a transparent raincoat. In Niseko, watching a front-end loader clearing huge piles of snow on a public road was a flagman in blue livery with a white helmet, a whistle, and a flashing baton who signalled for the driver to stop every time a pedestrian walked nearby, nodding and smiling at anyone who walked past. Roadworks in Japan are accompanied by a whole load of regularly arranged flashing cones and a workforce which looks as though they are interested in getting the job done and minimising inconvenience to traffic, one of whom is a flagman decked out in a white helmet and reflective clothing who actually watches the traffic. The road crews in Sakhalin look like escaped prisoners and the flagman loses interest to the point that he idly waves you through into the path of a speeding Isuzu lorry coming the other way. What struck me about the work ethic in Japan – and I am prepared to believe this is only appearances which belie a different reality – was that even those doing what would normally be classed as menial jobs seemed to be carried out with professionalism and dedication without the stigma which accompanies such work in the west. There are thousands of middle-aged or even elderly men doing menial work in Japan who seem more enthusiastic and take more pride in their work than people in middle management in the UK. Clearly this is a cultural thing whereby any work is viewed as more noble than doing nothing, even if the work is menial; and if a job needs doing, even a menial job, then it should be carried out to perfection. It struck me as a form of welfare. Rather than taking the UK approach of paying a couple of million able-bodied people to sit about doing nothing whilst countless menial tasks go undone, the Japanese culture allows people to carry out useful (if not strictly necessary) tasks without the stigma associated with doing a rubbish job. In terms of appearance, a visitor to Japan comes away amazed at how clean and orderly the place is and how professional the people are. A visitor to the UK comes away wondering why the nation which conquered the developing world is so eager to adopt its appearance.

Tokyo was a lot of fun. Having arrived in Narita and got ourselves on the super-comfortable bus with loads of baggage space and unbelievably helpful driver (who loaded our bags for us) which took us to our hotel followed by the obligatory arrival beer or three, we headed off to some acting school where we learned to samurai sword fight for 3 hours. We were (thankfully) only using wooden swords, and the beers beforehand were not a good idea, and the instructors couldn’t really speak English, and the little Japanese instructor looked more than capable of chopping us in half with a sword while sipping tea on a veranda, but it was heaps of fun and even though we are probably not going to be called upon to work as samurai warriors any time soon, we did manage to pull off some semi-cool looking moves (accompanied by the obligatory “Japanese” war cry gleaned from war movies) and even took part in a role play where we kill one of the instructors. This was an acting school after all.

A Samurai warrior defeats a brigand

The Samurai warrior turns on the brigand’s camera crew

Nothing is more natural to a visitor in Tokyo who has had 3 hours of samurai sword instruction than going to get ratarsed until the early hours, so as the forces of nature demanded of us, we did that. We headed for the Golden Gai district which is made up of hundreds of tiny bars, some no larger than 2m x 4m, and proceeded from one to another, drinking a beer in each one, adhering to a rule that we must go down any dark, dingy alley we came across.

Listen love, I’ve told you already, I’m engaged, all right?

It was fun, with some of the small bars showing plentiful character which some say Tokyo lacks, although we did find ourselves paying extortionate prices for even a single drink and half the time a cover charge was piled on top. Unsensibly for four expats with over 20 years of overseas experience amongst us, we happily told one barman who, when he was figuring out what to charge us and asked the question, that we had never been here before and had no idea how the system worked. Unsurprisingly we got fleeced.

Anyone know how much this is gonna cost?

Gradually the beer turned into soju (which I always thought was a Korean drink), and then to potato soju foisted on us by a couple of very friendly young Japanese men who we stumbled across in a bar. I was more comfortable on the soju, even if made from potatoes, than endless pitchers of (excellent) Sapporo beer, but our poor German friend is hopeless on spirits (but drinks beer in 5-day sessions) and ended up drunkenly claiming he could moonwalk which the Japanese really, really wanted to witness. They did, we did, we all laughed. We stopped laughing when one of the Japanese pulled out his mobile phone, flipped it open, rotated the screen through 90-degrees to show how he could watch Japanese TV on widescreen anywhere in the country. We showed him how ours could send text messages and take grainy photos, and talked about this thing called fire we discovered last month.

Okay, we’ve met some incredibly drunk westerners. Now what?

I was pretty hammered at this stage and so am somewhat reliant on others’ testimony for what happened, but it seems the Japanese were in two minds whether to go home for some much-needed sleep (they were working the next day, and it was already 1am) or to take us to a Japanese restaurant. They chose the latter, and walked us along what seemed like a quarter of the Tokyo marathon route towards the restaurant. Along the way we were continually harassed by African men trying to entice us into various strip joints with dubious promises of the best girls in Tokyo. This took all of us by complete surprise, and after a while it became seriously annoying as the men were most insistent and would follow us for miles. I pretended I was a Russian who knew no English and they left me alone, but it was still a pain. I’m surprised the Japanese put up with it, I can’t believe many visitors are left with anything but a negative impression after coming into contact with these men, who number in the hundreds. I wonder if they do the job because the Japanese for whatever reason find it difficult to do themselves? Certainly, when we were in Sapporo I noticed the Japanese men trying to flog us similar services were far less animated, almost embarrassed. And thankfully, there appear to be areas where touting for strip clubs is forbidden; walking down one street, the chap following us stopped abruptly as though a line were drawn in the road, and from thereon we could walk in peace.

So we ended up in a restaurant with our two Japanese friends who could not speak much English, which mattered not one jot to us or them, and we sat on the floor with our shoes lying somewhere near the door as beer after beer and plate after plate arrived at our table for the next couple of hours. I have no idea what was said by whom or to whom, but I do remember that when the bill came it was the same price as we’d paid for 4 drinks in the Golden Gai and we had a bit of a hard time trying to get our friends to let us pay for it. We ended up splitting it 50:50 or 60:40 or everyone throwing in random notes until the waiter left satisfied, and we spilled onto the road back-slapping and thanking and went our separate ways sometime around 3am. I forget what the plan was, but we somehow ended up in a minute bar somewhere containing a counter and four stools which was so narrow that when your belly was against the counter your back was six inches from the wall.

Look! We’re the only ones in here!

D’you think he knows we’re not from around here?

The barman was a lively fellow, which was just as well considering the state of his clientele, and kept us plied with drinks and put up with what must have been inane conversation until somewhere near 4am when we fell out onto the road, which could be done by leaning back on your stool, dodged the Cameroonian at the end of the road who promised us women and, erm, more women and took a taxi home. I guess we’ll never know if the barman believed the story from two of our number that they were producers of pornographic movies, but he seemed to as somebody woke up in the morning with a piece of paper with a few phone numbers scrawled on it. Numbers, I hasten to add, that went unrung.

One of these two is a porn king

There’s nothing quite like shopping for electronics in Tokyo, and for a few hours the next day that’s what we did. It’s fun, because you get to look at the stuff we’ll be using in our homes in the west in 10 years time. The cutting edge technology we see in the UK has probably been in Japan since 1986. More importantly, you could find lying on shelves any accessory for Canon cameras which exists. I struggled in vain in Singapore and Manila to find certain accessories for my SLR and video camera, but in the giant electronics store in Tokyo the lady flicked through the catalogue and pulled it off the shelf behind her without wrinkling a brow. We also wandered into a sex shop which suggested that perhaps all is not well in the gloomier corners of Japanese society. Eerie dolls of what looked to be 12 year old schoolgirls, umpteen devices combining latex, gels, and mysterious liquids into which male members can be poked for sexual pleasure, machinery for men and women which made me wonder where they recruit the designers from, and an impressive selection of DVDs through which ran the common theme of the action being slightly, and sometimes not so slightly, forced. Then there were the pornographic comic books which lined shelves in their thousands, many of which depicted various bodily fluids deposited by what must have been a firehose rather than a human being. Very strange indeed, but seemingly no less popular for being so.

One highlight of our two-day adventure in Tokyo was going to the Tokyo Dome City theme park and riding the Thunder Dolphin roller coaster. Tokyo is a big city containing some monster buildings, and it is somewhat disconcerting when hungover to look around you on the steep ascent at the start of the ride to see the whole city spread out aroud you, large towers beneath you, and notice that you are still only three-quarters the way up. If there are any Japanese wondering who those four foreigners were whimpering in the rearmost car during the ascent and blubbering near the top that they’d changed their minds and wanted to get off, it was us. It was a seriously good ride.

We flew from Tokyo Haneda airport to Sapporo on a 1-hour ANA commuter flight, which turned out to be a Boeing 747. With efficiency unrivalled anywhere else in the world the plane was filled from the boarding gate within fifteen minutes flat and emptied at the other end in ten. Even small planes in the UK take half an hour to fill what with dunderheads unable to find their seat and trying to fit 3-foot bags into a 2-foot space. And in Japan they don’t have some archaic system of physically tearing off boarding passes before you board, you simply flash a bar code past a reader and on you go.

Our first three days skiing were spent in the resport of Rusutsu, where I donned my newly purchased skiing gear and found myself an instructor, a 54-year old called Mori who used to be in the Japanese airforce. I asked him when he first learned to ski, but alas he couldn’t remember. His earliest memory was him skiing to school when he was 3 or 4, so it must have been before then. By contrast, I had had a couple of 2-hour ski lessons on Gornii Vozdukh the week before I went where I had mastered the snowplough (provided it wasn’t too steep and I wasn’t expected to turn right). My lesson in how to mount a ski-lift was delivered in the time between the thing whacking my legs and the bar coming down and whacking my head, and my first attempt at dismounting saw me skidding along the floor on my arse and a further two or three minutes to get back up onto my skis, all of which amused my companions somewhat. By the time Mori had finished with me he had me good enough to go down any of the red runs in the resort (which I did the next day), and was making something between parallel turns and a snowplough (more of one than the other depending on which direction I was trying to turn in). My speed down the slope was somewhere between snail and glacial, my body position put my chin between my skis, and my arms flailed like a grain thresher but I was able to get down the slopes without falling over. My friends, whose cruelty knows no bounds, chided me for not making enough effort in falling over and christened me Sonic Boom.

Erm, I found these lying about. Anyone know what they are for?

By the time we got to Niseko for the final five days skiing and I’d taken another couple of hours instruction from an Aussie, I was going a bit faster and able to come down the steeper slopes doing parallel turns, which is about where I wanted to be in terms of skiing by the end of the holiday. Niseko was a nice enough place but ludicrously expensive; for example, we were charged $3 each for some raw cabbage leaves and mustard which was a compulsory purchase when you sit down in one of the bars, so we took an opportunity one night to go to Kutchan, the small town just along the road by bus, where the prices were a third what they were in the ski resort and even though I don’t particularly like sushi I thought this is the place to eat a pile of it if I’m ever going to. So I did, and it was not at all bad. The skiing was a bit hit and miss, largely due to a monster hangover which wrote me off for the first day and the final day saw strong winds close all the lifts and the snow turned into slush. During our stay the place was half empty and many buildings stood unoccupied, perhaps a sign of the economic crisis. If they want to retain the numbers for next year, they’re going to have to examine their prices. Another thing I liked about skiing was that afterwards you could go and get drunk and act like a lout, only it isn’t called getting drunk and acting like a lout. Instead it gets called aprés ski, and is therefore far more sophisticated.

All in all, it was a a great trip and a huge thanks are due to the two Japanese gentlemen who took us out in Tokyo, as well as the dozens of Japanese who helped us out when we were struggling with something or other, from locating the right bus to dismounting a ski-lift.

Before I finish, some public apologies are due to various people. Jan would like to apologise to a certain barmaid for asking in all seriousness whether she was from Niseko or another part of Japan (she was from New Zealand); Nick would like to apologise to whomever has to pay for the serviceable parts of the toilets in the places we stayed; I would like to apologise to my three companions who had to share a chalet with me (they know what for); Mark would like to apologise to the Japanese Department of Health, Sanitation, and the Environment for leaving his ski socks outside and thus being responsible for the extinction of at least two indigenous species; Nick and I would like to apologise to Mark for his being unable to make any move whatsoever on the pretty Japanese girl in Splash bar (those purple wellies would have looked good beside your bed); I feel an apology is necessary to two wonderful young ladies from Queensland whom I mistakenly said lacked class; Jan would like to apologise to his entire nation for being the most untidy, disorganised German ever to have entered a ski chalet; and we would all like to apologise to the next residents of the Ronde Lodge in Niseko who must surely be due some discount.

Finally, I hope the Australian who gave an unprovoked Nazi salute to Jan and Mark when they were wearing their lederhosen gets a damned good kicking, sooner rather than later.

Unrealistic Job Advert #1

I’m back from Japan with my limbs still intact and a skiing ability sufficient to get me down the slope on Gornii Vozdukh yesterday evening.  I am currently writing a lengthy post on Japan, and hopefully I’ll get it posted over the weekend.

Anyway, I arrived back in Sakhalin to the news that I will be getting booted from my job on 30th April, with the rest of my department following in May and June.  The reasons for this are quite simple, and I will explain in more detail at a later date.  Like 1st of May.

Which means I am now seriously on the hunt for another job and as such trawling through various recruitment websites looking for suitable positions.  I have commented before about some of the rather fanciful adverts put out by companies looking to recruit in the oil and gas business, and pointed out that the problem of not enough “young” (meaning, younger than 55) people in the industry is a problem purely of the industry’s own making.  I have to say that things have improved slightly in the 2-3 years since I wrote my original post (although I might just be seeing the benefit of my own additional 2-3 years experience here), and I was relieved to hear that one company I am applying for a job with specifically asked for somebody under 35 years of age who would be open to development and be able to adapt into an new working culture.  Yet still we see hopelessly unrealistic requirements being fitted to a job description which a company would struggle to fill at the best of times.

So given that I am going to be churning through a huge number of oil and gas job ads over the next few weeks or months, I thought I’d start a small series of unrealistic job adverts which I come across.  I shall not be linking to the adverts as this might jeopardise my own job hunting efforts and consign me to a lifetime of snow-clearing on Sakhalin, so you’ll just have to trust me on this.  But here is the first:

Our client is aiming to be the largest oil & gas EPC in the world and is experiencing continued growth in it’s sector. From a successful contract win they now require a number of experienced engineers to work on a project in Kazakhstan.

Specifically they require a degree qualified Field Engineering Coordinator who has 16 years experience with a major EPC and a design background. You MUST speak Russian and be able to mobilise immediately.

Hmm.  Anybody with 16 years experience in a major EPC (engineering company) will be at least 37 years old, more likely in his mid-40s.  If he is to have learned Russian to the point where he can coordinate engineering activities, he will have had to have done it in parallel with his day job or have been lucky enough to be born to a Russian parent.  Had he studied it academically he would be unlikely to have 16 years experience in engineering design in a major EPC, so anyone in this position speaking Russian will have to be seriously motivated and/or smart.  The number of foreigners I have met on Sakhalin who can speak Russian to a high level who did not study it in university or grew up speaking it can be counted on the fingers of one hand.  Even the number of us who can get by socially and practically but fall over in a technical or business situation is very low, and were it not for my hammering out the lessons in Dubai and roaming about Russia before I came I’d be no better than anybody else.  As it happens, I speak Russian better than almost every foreigner I come across here (I will hastily add that the few who do speak Russian well speak it much, much better than me).   In short, the number of foreigners who have advanced engineering skills and are also proficient in Russian are very few in number to the point they are almost non-existent (for the record, I fall into neither category).

But let’s assume this chap exists.  Where do you think he will be?  Employed as a senior manager by an established multinational in a plush office in Moscow living in an impressive apartment on a humungous salary?  Or sat at home unemployed prepared to go to Atyrau – think Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk in a barren desert devoid of mountains or nature – on a moment’s notice to work as a field engineering coordinator!! Mid-40s, 16 years in a major EPC, design experience, fluent in Russian, and working as a field engineering coordinator?!!  What skills does the project manager possess?  Alchemy?

I have no idea who the company is, but if they are “aiming to be the largest oil & gas EPC in the world” they’d better get somebody in who has a realistic idea of how to recruit people.