Oil in the blood

February 4, 2013

Baku, Azerbaijan

By David Mdzinarishvili

One morning last week, as I was looking for general shots of the Azeri oil industry, the oil worker walking with me suddenly stopped, and looked out admiringly at the nodding oil pumps silhouetted by the rising sun over the Caspian. He turned to me and said proudly, “This is Azerbaijan!”

Commercial oil production has a long history in Azerbaijan, a country of 9 million at the crossroads of Eastern Europe and Western Asia. Starting with European prospectors in the 19th century, the industry became a major part of the soviet economic model and a strategic goal to be protected at all costs. With the fall of the Soviet Union production faltered as Azerbaijan struggled with its independence, but soon investment returned, new reserves were tapped and the oil has started to flow again.

Offshore rigs are responsible for 80% of the 43 million tonnes of oil pumped last year from Azerbaijan, and this is the reason I found myself on a helicopter bound for the imaginatively named oil platform number 5, about 100kms (62 miles) from the coast, in the waters of the Caspian.

This is where I met Namik Aliyev, a stocky 32 year-old, who has been in the business for a relatively short period of 12 years, but oil is in his blood. Every day Namik, accompanied by his two assistants, tours the platform checking the equipment and taking oil samples for analysis. He puts his ear to the pipes to check that oil is running smoothly and rubs samples between his fingers to feel the structure.

He gives orders that this valve be shut, and this bolt to be turned, and the group moves on. This session of checks lasts about 30 minutes. After a glass of the local sweet tea, the most popular social lubricant in this region, it’s time to start the procedure again. So the cycle repeats through the working day for the 15 days of each shift on the platform. Evenings are spent over backgammon and dominoes accompanied by the indispensable glasses of tea.

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