Sakhalin II LNG Site

There is a very detailed satellite view of the Sakhalin II LNG facility under construction at Prigorodnoye on Sakhalin Island here.  This is the largest project on the island, and involves nearly everyone who is working here in some way or another, plus an enormous number abroad.  The blue and purple buildings at the top is the camp for 5,500 workers who live on the site, and a further 3,000 travel in each day.


When A Western Expat Meets The Locals

My wife and I were invited to a joint birthday party last night, to which we arrived at 7:30pm.  By 8:30 I was feeling very ill, and was quite astonished by the speed at which everyone was drinking vodka or some very ropey Martini (never mind the label, if that was Martini then I’m the Queen of Sheba).  It didn’t help that the vodka was of poor quality, but even if I’d been drinking Absolut’s finest I’d have been in trouble.  I’m no stranger to drinking with Russians, but this lot were on another level.  By the time we left at midnight some of them were still going strong.  Drinking like this is a spectator sport.

Anyway, for the last few hours I stuck to juices and tea in a desperate effort (which was ultimately successful) to avoid being hungover for the rather important meeting I have with my boss this morning, and in doing so I was able to talk to some Russians about actual stuff, as opposed to being a gibbering wreck with my head down the U-bend.  One of the things I got asked a lot is why I like Russia so much, and why I prefer Sakhalin Island with its terrible conditions and crumbling infrastructure over Dubai with its fancy hotels and (supposedly) luxurious lifestyle.  The answer, as I’ve always said, is the people.

Here I don’t feel much like an expat.  This party took place in a Korean restaurant which I would bet sees about two expats a month, and I was the only non-Russian at the table.  A handful spoke English, but not much was spoken.  Although I am treated as somewhat of a novelty by Russians, I can safely say that in this group of people, I belonged.  I joined in the fun along with all the others and did not feel one bit out of place.  I met some new people, and drank to their health, and left amongst much back slapping and bear hugs and promises to get completely plastered tonight over a game or two of billiards, which I fully intend to keep should my wife feel generous and allow me to go.  I’ve been in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk only about 11 weeks, and already know a gang of locals.

I contrast this with the Middle East, where I was only once ever invited to a local’s home and never to a social function which involved close friends and family.  There were many meals in fancy restaurants (with a depressing lack of ale), but these were all business related.  I suppose in many ways this was my fault, as I made no efforts to learn the language, understand local customs, or learn what passes for the culture in that part of the world.  But I always got the impression that even if I had made a gargantuan effort to immerse myself into the locals, I would never have got very far.  Indeed, I can’t think of any westerner who is close enough to a local to thump on his door on a Friday (think Sunday) morning, invite himself in, embrace his mate’s wife who is making him a coffee, jump on the sofa beside his mate who is watching TV and demand that he gets his arse into gear because the weather is good and we really should do something.  In fact, I can’t think of any westerner who would feel comfortable banging on a local’s door on a Friday morning under any circumstances, unless he had a prior invitation for a specific purpose.  Every westerner I spoke to on the subject in the Middle East said there was always an “Us and Them” feel about the whole situation.  What I found was an unbridgeable gulf between us and them, and although some people worked hard at closing the gap, the gulf remained nonetheless.

Now it’s one thing to identify that a huge gap exists between two cultures, but quite another to identify why.  I’m just an engineer and not a psychologist so I am not stating this as fact, but I reckon the reason is a difference in the thought processes adopted by the religious and the secular which takes the two to such different conclusions of any given situation, and this in turn modifies the general behaviour of each.  I always feel I can understand how a Russian man thinks (leave the women out of this for now), and never find that I am too far off his wavelength.  In the Middle East however, I often found myself talking to somebody whose mindset was a galaxy or two away from mine.  Take by way of example an entry on the UAE Community Blog which in my opinion highlights just how far apart the Middle Eastern mentality is from, well, just about anywhere secular: 

I have posted an entry earlier this year about the “Wellbeing Show” which featured, among others; magicians, tarot readers, Seminars on how to know your future, and a whole lot of other nonsense.

To all of you who are familiar with islamic laws, you know what kind of offence that is. And if you care, please help spread the word and stop this nonsense.

Then in the comments, a reply reads thusly:

Thanks for highlighting this topic. I believe that only weak people go to these astrologers because they are not content with whatever God has given them. They go to the astrologers because it makes them feel better & stronger, although in reality they are being fooled & ripped of their money.

Which is all well and good, until you read the second part of the comment:

No one in his right mind can deny the existence of black magic, it is a fact. And ajwa dates is one of several remedies prescribed by our Prophet peace be upon him to protect us from the evils of magic.

So tarot reading is offensive nonsense which must be opposed, whereby anybody who doubts the existence of black magic must be a nutcase.  It can hardly be said that these sentiments belong only to a fringe minority in the Middle East, indeed they are pretty widespread, and it was this type of thought process, i.e. that certain trivial things are categorically wrong but we’ll put blind faith in others which outsiders find ludicrous, which I believe prevents westerners from really immersing themselves with the locals in contrast to how I am able to get on in Russia.


Human Shields Exposed, Rights Violated

I’ve written before about the bizarre situations which pass for reality in Middle Eastern affairs which concern Israel.  An article from the BBC does little to dispel my view that visitors to the region must be forced to abandon all logic and common sense at customs when they enter:

Large numbers of Palestinians have converged on a home in Gaza belonging to a senior member of the ruling Palestinian militant group Hamas.

The move follows reports the Israeli air force was about to attack it, but there has been no confirmation of this.

Nothing unusual about this: using civilians as human shields has been a weapon in the Palestinians’ armoury for years.  However, Louise Arbour, the UN high commissioner for human rights who was visiting a different town in Gaza, had this to say:

“The violations of human rights in the Palestinian territories are intolerable.  I think it’s clear that civilians are tremendously exposed.”

Well, yes.  They are tremendously exposed.  But perhaps civilians in the Palestinian territories could reduce this exposure somewhat by not deliberately gathering around the target of a proposed airstrike.


Gazprom’s Folly

I am embarrassingly late onto this story, and I blame a lack of internet connection followed by a lack of subscription to Upstream magazine in my new company.  Last month, Gazprom announced that it would not be looking for foreign partners to develop the enormous Shtokman gas field in the Barents Sea:

Russia Today television broke the news, quoting Gazprom boss Alexei Miller as saying that Gazprom had been unable to find suitable international partners for the liquefied natural gas project.

A Gazprom spokesman later confirmed the report.

Last year, Gazprom said that it shortlisted US supermajors Chevron and ConocoPhillips, Norway’s Norsk Hydro and Statoil and France’s Total to join it in the development.

Despite the companies presenting technical and business proposals on the the development of the field months ago, Gazprom has never selected two or three of them as its final partners for Shtokman.

This is not surprising.  The Russian government and many Russians feel that they are getting the raw end of the deal on its existing projects which feature a foreign partner, and believe that their massive gas reserves coupled with heavy demand from Europe, Asia, and the US and a high oil price puts them firmly in the driving seat.  And in all honesty, as with the Arabs and the oil, they are indeed.  They have the resources which the wealthy Europeans, Asians, and Americans desperately need.  I am sure that this decision to exclude foreign partners is a result of this renewed confidence and will be extremely popular with the domestic audience.

What is not so clear is that Gazprom or any other Russian company will have the faintest idea how to develop and operate a gas field of the size and complexity of Shtokman.  When left to their own devices, national oil companies tend to make an utter pig’s ear of running an oilfield, concentrating only on production with scant regard to efficiency, safety, the environment, or the long-term health of the reservoir.  Most of the older Russian oilfields are producing poor quality crude thanks to Soviet policies of pumping in water to increase immediate production at the expense of future quality.  And I have worked in one national oil company which was once refused permission from the government to shut down a leaking export line with the result that it caught fire, spread back to the nearby facility which in turn caught fire and was completely destroyed, killing a few folk in the process.

Gazprom are not a national oil company as such but they are state controlled, which means political interference.  The Shtokman gas project will be immensely technologically challenging due to the climate and offshore location.  They will almost certainly need foreign expertise in the engineering and construction phase and as this article shows, the Russians realise this:

Russia has not ruled out inviting foreign companies to work on its giant Shtokman gas project, President Vladimir Putin said today.

“Russia has decided to develop this field independently. We will be the sole subsoil user and owner of the field, but we do not rule out inviting foreign companies for joint work on development or doing part of the gas liquefaction process and marketing it in third countries,” Putin told Reuters after a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

That is a very good idea, because if you do rule out using foreign companies to provide gas liquefaction or offshore technologies you’re going to be reinventing the wheel to the point that you’ll be at least 30 years behind current technology from the outset.  Indeed, it is certain that most of the engineering, construction, and commissioning will be carried out by foreign firms, perhaps in partnership with local outfits.  Quite how these foreign companies will get along on a project being managed by Gazprom, who have no large scale project management experience whatsoever, is open to question.  If Gazprom can keep the project free of political interference and corruption, and resist the urge to stand on the contractors’ necks just to show ’em who is boss, the project will go just fine.  That’s a big if, and if ever there will be a test of whether Gazprom is ready to be called a world class energy giant, this will be it.

What is equally worrying is how Gazprom will operate and maintain a large and complicated LNG facility.  It is easy to say that they don’t need foreign expertise as they can simply buy the technology and manage it themselves, but not so easy to do in practice.  The Middle East is a fine example of that, whereby companies bought hi-tech oil and gas facilities and watched them deteriorate as they were either unwilling or unable to put in the time, money, and effort to keep the things working safely and efficiently.  Not for no historical reason does my previous company make its money helping companies to rectify 25 years of neglect.  Operation and maintenance is equally as complicated and important as building the thing in the first place.  You wouldn’t buy a Ferrari and run it with the same oil and brake pads for 10 years, would you?  Yet some governments think they can buy LNG technology and do all the servicing themselves, if they bother at all.  Next time a Russian tells you foreign oil companies have no business operating Russian fields, poke him in the chest and ask him how often the seats in the emergency shutdown valves should be replaced.  He’ll not have a clue, but more worryingly nor will the company he thinks should be operating the field.

What the likes of Gazprom lack is a corporate memory of running things to international standards.  Companies like Exxon, BP, and Shell have banks upon banks of historical data recording how often components fail, how often they should be maintained or replaced, and what material to use.  This has been painstakingly gathered over decades and turned into detailed procedures and specifications which determine exactly how a facility is run.  These have then been revised accordingly following accidents and other failures where the current procedure or specification has been found wanting.  Over time, and only over time, does a company develop a culture whereby the entire workforce from senior managers to lowly technicians follow the procedures and practices which have been proven to work.  It is not possible to simply purchase a lump of technology and the handbook containing the procedures and run a facility.  This has been tried, and it just doesn’t work.

Some governments have woken up to this, but being reluctant to hand over full control of their oilfields to foreigners have attempted a halfway house situation whereby they bring in a recognised company to install and implement their management systems without actually being in charge.  One of the subsidiaries of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company recently brought Exxon-Mobil on board as a 28% stakeholder in an effort to implement its maintenance management systems across its crumbling assets.  This approach is usually better than trying to go it alone, but still leaves the company vulnerable to political interference or cronyism.  Often the success or otherwise of such a partnership depends as much on the individuals involved than the company brought in to help.

So what should the Russian government do instead?  Firstly, look around the world.  It will see that the only national oil company which operates safely, efficiently, and on a par with international standards is Statoil of Norway.  The rest range from being bloated and inefficient to startling unsafe and riddled with corruption.  Secondly, convince itself and the Russian population that a foreign oil company operating a Russian oilfield is not tantamount to theft of national resources.  Then it should carve up the field into licensed blocks, flog the licenses to the highest bidders, and tax the production from thereon.  Regulation should be enforced where it is needed, for instance on health and safety and environmental matters, but other than that it should stay well away from the whole shooting match.

And there’s a fat chance of that.


Russian Children

Via Tim Worstall, I came across this article in The Guardian about how British kids nowadays hold adults in contempt.  I don’t recommend you read it as it is tripe of the highest order, particularly when the author attempts to identify the cause of the problem.  However, there is little doubt that the problem exists.  British kids know damned well that they are immune to all but the most feeble of punishments, and behave accordingly.  I remember well the gangs of kids who used to smash up the buses in Manchester knowing that even if they were challenged by an adult they could tell them to eff off with impunity, and in the unlikely event the police caught them they’d be too young to charge.

Russia seems to be slightly different, or at least in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk.  Shortly after I arrived here, I went to go into the entrance to my apartment building and found half a dozen kids sat on the step blocking the way.  I expected to have to ask them at least twice to move and have a string of abuse thrown my way in return, which would almost certainly have happened in many British towns.  To my surprise, as I approached they fell over themselves to get out of the way.  Having seen this, I started to notice a pattern: Russian kids have a healthy respect for adults in the street, and far from going out of their way to abuse them, they steer well clear.  There’s a reason for this. 

If a British kid hurls abuse at a man, or refuses to get out of the way of his front door, the adult is powerless.  If he does take any action more severe than raising his voice slightly, the police will be round within half an hour to charge the adult with abuse and a quite likely a sex offence.  The British kids know this and act accordingly.  In Russia it’s a bit different.  If a Russian kid badmouths a Russian man on the street or blocks his way, he’ll get a slap round the head that he’ll not forget in a hurry.  Were a passing militiaman to notice this, he’d likely slap the kid a second time to make sure the lesson sunk in.  Russian kids know this, and act accordingly.

As Tim asks the author of the piece:

None of it, of course, could possibly be part of the children’s rights movement?

It’s a good question, with an obvious answer.  It is the children’s rights movement that have put children above the law by failing to differentiate between genuine abuse and discipline.  I do not know the figures, but I would be willing to bet that incidents of genuine child abuse in the UK have fallen over recent years and are way below that of Russia, and that is to the credit of the UK government.  But in solving one problem they have simply created another, one which is likely to have rather unpleasant consequences in years to come.  And for me in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, I am somewhat embarrased that Russian society is managing to produce children with far more personal responsibility and general manners than that of my motherland.


First Proper Snow

Despite a week’s delay, the inevitable has finally occurred: last night we had a few inches of snow dumped on us, and it is here to stay.  Two weeks ago we had our first snowfall in temperatures which barely got above 1 or 2 degrees, and we woke up one morning to find an inch or so covering the ground, and I drove to work to find cars on their roofs, bent around trees, and in passionate embrace of others.  But by lunchtime it had more or less gone and the next week saw the temperature stay around 8 to 10 degrees during the day and only about 0 or -1 at night.  For November, this was very unusual, or so spaketh the old and wisened of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk.  Indeed, even on Thursday it was about 7 or 8 degrees in the evening.

But things change quickly in Russia, and Friday evening saw those 7 or 8 degrees stripped off the thermometer and the temperature plunge to the low minuses.  There was snow in the air, but not too much.  Then yesterday at 5pm I left a bar where I’d been meeting a client to find the snow coming down thick and fast in flakes the size of 10 pence pieces (or quarters, for my US readers).  A strong wind kept the stuff blowing about, and by late evening an inch had fallen and settled.  This morning there are a couple more inches and powdery snow still falling.

Apparently we will not see the ground again before May, the four feet of mud and slush in April notwithstanding.  I got my winter tyres fitted just in time. 


Police Day

Today, November 10th, is Police Day in Russia.  That means they all want to go and get plastered tonight, and that requires money, which means they need to pull over more motorists from which to extract bribes.

The police were out in full force in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk this morning, pulling over motorists left right and centre.  I narrowly avoided a speed trap at 7:15am on my way to our training centre, but made a daft mistake on the way to the site an hour later.  There is a large police checkpoint outside the town where the limit goes from 70 to 40 over a very short distance.  I usually crawl through this section, but today the road was clear and I went through the first gantry, several hundred metres from the actual checkpoint, at 57kph instead of 40kph.  As a result, I got flagged over and hauled into the office.  Problem was, my Russian is crap but infinitely better than the English of the police: both the rough-looking captain and the twelve year old with the submachinegun.  The latter asked me if I spoke Russian, and I said a bit and if he speaks slowly I’ll understand a bit.  However, I won’t understand bureacratic waffle designed to get me to pay you a bribe in order to avoid going to court.  He asked me if I had a translator, I said I didn’t.  He asked me if I had any at the office and I said I didn’t and they all speak only Russian.  Nobody was sure what to do.  I was: sit there and speak only when spoken to.  It’s a bit like being at school.  The captain then asked if my translators were all drunk, and I laughed at that.  He really was a jolly fellow, if only he didn’t look as though he was about to shoot me and bury me under his checkpoint we could have been best buddies.  Finally, he handed me back my documents and bid me goodbye.  I guess I was one of the lucky ones today of all days.  


A Trip to Moscow

I was intending to update my blog earlier in the week, but I came into work on Tuesday morning to discover I had to fly to Moscow that afternoon, and catch a flight back the next day.  We are ramping up the personnel on the project here in Sakhalin, and the first batch of new arrivals was a group of 45 Nepalese who were flying into Russia via Moscow and catching a connecting flight to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk.  Last time we just let them figure out the airport all on their own, and the result was 3 of them failed to clear immigration until after the connecting flight left.  Unable to communicate with anyone, they wandered around the airport for three days before the police bundled them onto an aircraft and sent them back to Nepal. Continue reading



Apologies for the lack of posting lately.  Work is getting pretty busy and my day is packed full of stuff to do, and the dialup connection I have in the apartment is rubbish.  I have a few things to write about, I’ll see what I can do this weekend.