Editorial – People are the real price of energy…

Today we will probably face some harsh realities. The situation in Algeria is looking tragic in the extreme and I expect by the end of the day there will be […]

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By Sumit Bose

Today we will probably face some harsh realities. The situation in Algeria is looking tragic in the extreme and I expect by the end of the day there will be several dozens of fatalities after the kidnap of gas workers at the In Amenas plant by islamic militants.

The loss of life whatever figure it is in the end and let’s hope it’s as low as possible, shows another example of how dangerous gathering energy can be. Algeria is a known hot spot as is much of north Africa but in reality energy companies know the risks when they build plants in these regions.

Despite the relative stability of the government in Algiers and it’s desire for foreign energy firms to help untap the nation’s resources, it seems there must have been some complicity in the terrorism from troops at check points, how else could they have driven from towns in the north to the middle of the Sahara Desert undetected?

This attack was clearly planned for weeks even months and the seizure of an energy plant with so many international workers in one place was clearly a target too juicy for Mokhtar Belmokhtar and his band of murderers. So was it protected well enough? Did BP and Statoil make enough provision for security? What training and risk awareness was given to the workers before they even set foot to do their jobs in that plant?

All questions that will no doubt be raised in the days and weeks to come. Even the Prime Minister making a statement to Parliament said once this incident was resolved there needed to be a “moment to learn lessons.”

But what would those lessons be? Energy plants are not only vital bits of infrastructure and need to be protected to keep a nation’s power supply working but they are now seen as high impact, global targets. If a tidal wave could take out a nuclear reactor in Japan imagine what a havoc a bomb or plane could do?

BP and Statoil are both huge companies with a track record of putting people in harm’s way and knowing how to protect them, they carry out risk analysis, employ bodyguards and liaise with intelligence organisations and international governments before they lay a brick.

But the game is changing. We are now exploring energy resources in more and more of Africa, the Caspian sea, Balkans, South and Latin America, all areas of enormous political instability and seething resentment from groups of rebels/ terrorists/ lunatics, call them what you like.

So even if you put gun towers around a gas plant or nuclear power station, even if you fingerprint and eyeball check everyone entering a power sub station, theses places are hot targets because they are generally away from built areas, on accessible coasts and packed to the gills with international workers.

People are the real commodity now as sadly the families of the engineers and scientists, caterers and cleaners who worked at In Amenas have tragically found out. I hope this is a one off incident but as we explore more dangerous regions for energy, human safety and not money must become the over riding decision for building an energy plant.