The Ocean Ranger
  • Paperback ISBN: 9781552664643
  • Paperback Price: $24.95 CAD
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  • Publication Date: Jan 2012
  • Pages: 200

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The Ocean Ranger

Remaking the Promise of Oil

Susan Dodd

On February 15, 1982, the oil rig Ocean Ranger sank off the coast of Newfoundland taking the entire crew of eighty-four men — including the author’s brother — down with it. It was the worst sea disaster in Canada since the Second World War, but the memory of this event gradually faded into a sad story about a bad storm — relegated to the “Extreme Weather” section of the CBC archives. Susan Dodd resurrects this disaster from the realm of “history” and maps the socio-political processes of its aftermath, when power, money and collective hopes for the future revised the story of corporate indifference and betrayal of public trust into a “lesson learned” by an heroic industry advancing technology in the face of a brutal environment. This book is a navigational resource for other disaster aftermaths, including that of the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico, and a call for vigilant government regulation of industry in all its forms.


”This is an extraordinary book. Much more than a personal narrative about the impact of an industrial disaster on a family, Dodd explores memory of industrial disasters as a complex and multi-layered project. Her reading of government reports, lawsuits and monetary settlements, songs and novels illuminate the different ways the past is commemorated and reconstructed and the implications for moving forward. Dodd’s discussion of personal injury litigation and the role of monetary compensation, or ‘blood money’, should be mandatory reading for all first-year law students.”  

— Eric Tucker, Osgoode Hall Law School, York University


Preface: Feb 14–15, 1982 • Introduction: The Promise of Oil ... Broken • “The” Ocean Ranger Story: The Royal Commission of Inquiry • The Families’ Financial Settlements • Blood Money: Right, Responsibility and Stigma • Commemorations: Giving Shape to Loss • Remaking the Promise of Oil: A Map of the Aftermath of the Ocean Ranger Disaster • Remaking the Promise of Liberal Capitalism: Legitimation Crisis and Working Through • Select Bibliography • Index

About the Author

SUSAN DODD is an assistant professor in the Foundation Year Programme at the University of King’s College.


Review in Canadian Journal of Communication

 Unlike many so-called “isolated” marine disasters, whether the loss of a ship or the material effect of a storm battering the shore, the sinking of the Deepwater Horizon oilrig was a continuous event. In the months that followed, as the mainstream news media’s constant tracking of the situation quite literally showed its underwater reality, oil from the Macondo well flowed for months into the Gulf of Mexico off the shores of Louisiana. The legal, financial, and regulatory outcomes of the “disaster” all remain subject to ongoing governmental and judicial review, if not public debate. Could the Deepwater Horizon be considered an ongoing disaster? 

Think back to February 14, 1982, and another rig disaster. These were the early, heady days of offshore oil drilling in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador. The Ocean Ranger, a rig designed, owned, and operated by the New Orleans-based Ocean Drilling and Exploration Company, and under contract to Mobil Oil, was the largest semi-submersible oilrig in the world. It promised to enable the most technologically sophisticated exploration of oil the world, and the energy industry, had ever seen. As Susan Dodd’s remarkable work, The Ocean Ranger: Remaking the Promise of Oil, recounts, that Valentine’s night when a North Atlantic storm hit the rig with oceanic force. In the early hours of the morning, water started to come into a ballast control room located in one of the rig’s legs. A portlight, eighteen inches in diameter, had been smashed by the drive of the water. As water began to cover the console used to stabilize the rig by controlling the rush of water in and out of its floating pontoons, the men aboard scrambled to find a solution. Without proper training, a decisive emergency response manual, or the basic know-how to respond in this extreme situation, they cut the power to the panel. The rig, engineered to be unsinkable, began to tilt. In an attempt to reestablish its balance, they turned the panel back on. Soon after, the rig was in a full list. The men called in a mayday, and began an unwitnessed evacuation of the rig.

Among the 84 men who died that night, “lost at sea” in the tradition of marine disasters, was a young “mud engineer” by the name of Jim Dodd. “My brother Jim’s death was a personal loss for me and my family,” Susan Dodd writes, “but it was also a political failure” (p. 5). Dodd’s meticulous, critical recasting of the individual, social, political, economic, and cultural legitimation crises that ensued from the sinking of the Ocean Ranger sheds light on the outcomes of the conflict between the very real, traumatic, and socially circulating death of 84 people and the “promise of oil.” In the face of liberal capitalism’s supposed dependence on future prosperity and continual economic progress, the Ocean Ranger, for Dodd, holds, in the retelling of the story of its sinking, the narrative possibility of conducting another form of memory work.

Through a commingling of personal and collective trauma, a comparative analysis of governmental and cultural discourses, and a close examination of past and present failures of corporate regulation, Dodd asks: “How do our recoveries from personal and collective trauma relate to the capacity of liberal capitalism to stave off crises of confidence in our political and economic systems?” (p. 25).

Dodd’s book, divided into six chapters, seeks to work against the “forgetfulness” induced by “liberal capitalism” (p. 135), and inculcates a sense of discursive readiness when it comes to reading industrial disasters as events that are always already implicated in ongoing narratives, and material documents, of legitimation. She attempts to work through the principal “socio-political processes that respond to a potential legitimation crisis” (p. 137) and the diverse ways in which they address and reorient personal and collective trauma. Dodd opens by taking apart the Royal Commission of Inquiry and its ensuing report. By making the Ocean Ranger disaster into a “ ‘learning story’” (p. 53), the inquiry’s working process of evidence gathering, consultation with industry and governmental experts, and literary composition,

clarified and secured a public account of how the men died, and it did so in a way that seemed to reconcile the ways people make sense of things in day to-day life with the decisions-making processes of governments and corporate bureaucracies. (p. 33)

In the chapter that follows, Dodd reworks the heavily symbolic role that money played in the aftermath of the disaster. At the nexus of charity, insurance payouts, workers’ compensation, and out-of-court settlements, the “costs of closure” (p. 55) for the families of the 84 men were steep. Dodd recalls that just as public trust can be battered and buried by a metaphoric wave of regulatory neglect, the righting that needs to take place to restore public confidence, and cultural justice more broadly, can seemingly only take place through the medium of money. She pauses over the variability of sums paid out to the families, drawing out a fascinating subplot of how Canadian and American legal cultures shaped the extent to which families could quantify loss and, in the process, change their own status as particular kinds of victims.

The third chapter picks up on the question of “blood money” that is at the root of tort law and traces its genealogical cultural history. The fourth chapter weighs the political and ideological import of commemoration as a practice in the wake of disaster, noting how these other retellings of the story can “challenge the simple narrative of shock-forensics-reform-action” (p. 111) that such devices as inquiry reports and systems of financial settlement bolster. Dodd’s closing chapters return to the processual “politics of memory in liberal capitalism” (p. 151) and how this powerful memory work can both conceal the ways in which governments have failed to regulate profit-driven corporations, and allow for practices of critical remembering, in particular across the fields of sociology and anthropology, that open up societal valuations of evidentiary accounts to qualitative revision and reevaluation.

“The sense of betrayal that emerged in the disaster’s aftermath did not come from a sudden discovery that companies seek profits or that the ocean can kill” (p. 18). For Dodd, this is a simple statement of the obvious. “The shock was in governments’ and oil companies’ failure to acknowledge that a rig is a ship on which people live and work, not just a platform for drilling oil” (p. 18-19). Dodd’s retelling of the Ocean Ranger story also indirectly re-conceptualizes the oilrig as a site of labour. Interrupting a technical reading of the disaster as one of mechanical failure—that eighteen inch breach of the world’s largest semi-submersible oilrig and the consequences of human decision and action—Dodd brings to life how intertwined technological failure and regulatory failure can be. Rather than let the Ocean Ranger be washed up into evolutionary narratives of technical improvement through failure, Dodd has written into existence a story wherein “the rig was equipment, certainly, but it was also living and working quarters, inhabited and ultimately managed by men” (p. 37). It was a ship that sank, and a true story of a continuing marine disaster. – Rafico Ruiz, McGill University


Review in The Newfoundland Quarterly

 In the early hours of February 15th, 1982, the Ocean Ranger, the world’s largest semi-submersible oil rig, sank off the coast of Newfoundland. All 84 of the crew perished. The loss brought back flashes of other terrible sea disasters. But this was not the ancient fishery; this was the modern oil industry. The oil companies had promised lucrative revenues, and the province had placed blind faith in infinite development and wealth. After several investigations, millions of dollars paid out to families in financial settlements and the first oil pumped from Hibernia, the story became this: the “lessons learned” from those early turbulent years helped pave the way for prosperity. In her compelling new book, The Ocean Ranger: Remaking the Promise of Oil, Susan Dodd examines how government and industry revised the account of cooperate neglect so the province could get on with the business at hand: multi-billion dollar petroleum development.   

This is not the first time Dodd, an assistant professor at the University of King’s College, has written on industrial disaster and the political means by which events are remembered, or discarded. She wrote her doctoral thesis on the 1991 Westray mining disaster, documenting the cozy relationship between the Nova Scotia government and the coal industry. But why did it take so long for a study like The Ocean Ranger: Remaking the Promise of Oil to take shape? “The fact that it took almost three decades is a tribute to the mastery of Justice Hickman’s inquiry report,” Dodd concludes, “and the silencing effect of the blood money from the financial settlements on the other.” 

As both a relative of a crew member lost with the Ocean Ranger, and a political theorist, the book is equal parts personal narrative and socio-political study. Dodd’s older brother, Jim, a mudlogger with the industrial supply and service company Schlumberger, was 24 when he died, one of 12 Canadians from outside the province. His body was never recovered. “The whole thing still enrages me,” Dodd said in a recent interview with CBC. “There’s absolutely no reason why those guys had to die.”

The Ocean Ranger: Remaking the Promise of Oil spends the majority of its pages outlining the swift and systematic approach by which the events and regulatory shortcoming that led to the deaths of 84 rig workers was molded into a more digestible theme, one that has been reiterated over 30 years by media, government and industry. The victims are often portrayed as “pioneers” in a burgeoning industry. For example: “Oil and gas development continues to be a symbol of prosperity and promise in Newfoundland and Labrador,” then-Minister of Natural Resources Kathy Dunderdale stated in a press release marking the 25th anniversary or the disaster. “But we must remember the sacrifice of the Ocean Ranger victims and their families along that path.”

Wading through a dizzying array of sources, Dodd’s arguments are nothing less than utterly convincing. According to her, “The Royal Commission became a starting point for all other versions of the disaster and marked the end of looking back with any kind of critical analysis.” But, as Dodd points out, “To demand closure too quickly, either as individuals or as a community, is, as political theorist Theodor Adorno cautioned, ‘To close the books on the past.’” Financial compensation, on the other hand, reintegrated the families back into the community from which they had been “exiled by tragedy,” in turn silencing some of the most ardent critics of government and industry.   

While the study of how politics and money shape collective memory is not new, The Ocean Ranger: Remaking the Promise of Oil incenses as it informs and should be essential reading for anyone tracking how governments and corporations strategically mitigate their losses, and how communities commemorate loss. According to Dodd, her family was one of the first to receive any payment from the oil companies. It paid for much of her post-secondary education. The irony is undeniable. – Mike Heffernan


Atlantic Books Today Spring 2012

 On Valentine’s night in 1982, the ‘unsinkable’ oil-rig Ocean Ranger sank in the deep, wintry ocean waters off the coast of Newfoundland. All eighty-four crewmembers died, including Susan Dodd’s  twenty-four-year old brother Jim. Published on the thirtieth anniversary of the disaster and dedicated to her parents, the book opens with the likely sequence of events that compromised the stability of the rig and the last harrowing hours as the crew fought for their lives. Dodd admits that it is still very hard for her to think about the failed evacuation attempt. Her comment regarding the photo of the capsized lifeboat attests to the rawness of her emotion even after all this time. “And that capsized lifeboat heaved and heaved in the grey television waves.”

Having had three decades to ponder what happened, why it happened, why similar industrial disasters continue to happen, it is obvious that Dodd decided to channel her feelings of loss, betrayal and anger into exploring authoritative answers to these questions. Grounded in an interdisciplinary, academic approach that includes legal, psychological, sociological, political and philosophical perspectives, each chapter makes for captivating reading. There is a breadth and depth of analysis that is on a far different plane from that of so-called “official’ reports.

Dodd writes with conviction. Her insights regarding oil companies’ and government’s handling of the aftermath of the Ocean Ranger point to systemic problems so insidious that they leave survivors feeling frustrated and powerless. She alludes to subsequent disasters like the Westray coal mine explosion, the crash of Cougar Flight 491 and the Deepwater Horizon explosion to hammer home the need for continued vigilance.

As I write, news of the tragic derailment of a CN train in Burlington, Ontario is hitting the airwaves. I find myself listening with a new set of ears, acutely aware of Dodd’s reiteration that “corporate self regulation is a myth” and that we all have “ an obligation to the future” to challenge the official version of industrial traumatic events. Although not an easy read, this book deserves a wide readership–artists, academics, industry specialists, politicians and citizens from a diversity of communities.–Madeline Comeau


St. John’s Telegram

 Thirty years after the loss of the Ocean Ranger, it is possible to teach a whole course of literature about the event. 

First came Ron Hynes’ hauntingly beautiful song “Atlantic Blue,” then came Lisa Moore’s novel “February” and Mike Heffernan’s oral history “Rig.”

Now the genres are fully covered with Susan Dodd’s non-fiction work, “The Ocean Ranger: Remaking the Promise of Oil.” All four works are brilliant explorations of that terrible, scarring event.

Dodd is a Nova Scotian who lost a brother on the Ranger. She was barely more than a child when Jim Dodd died.

Since then she’s grown up and become an assistant professor at the University of Kings College, and she has used her academic training to understand how this loss impacted her family and our community.

Dodd’s argument is fairly simple: she believes that “political and economic systems shored up public acceptance of their legitimacy as protectors of the very people they had allowed to be killed and bereaved in the disaster.” 

Step by step, she takes us through ODECO’s attempt to blame the disaster on “worker error,” Brian Peckford’s contention that Ottawa rather than the American companies were at fault, Alex Hickman’s recasting of government complicity with corporate negligence as a “shared lack of technical know-how,” and much more.

She writes compellingly about the legal settlements the families made, settlements she brutally calls “blood money,” and examines how acceptance of this money forced relatives to step back from their lobbying efforts while at the same time it induced both survivor guilt and the freedom to get on with their lives.

“In accepting that money, Ocean Ranger families gave up the right to force our accused to explain themselves to us,” she writes. Dodd’s own family received $25,000, more than some and less than others, but regardless of the sum or the need, all those who received payments were damaged by the act.

Seeded throughout this book are little facts that may be well-known but of which I was unaware.  For example, she reminds us that the Mobil shore manager testified at the Royal Commission that he had informed the standby vessels that tying a line to the one lifeboat that made it safely off the rig could cause it to capsize.

Workers on the rescue boat denied ever having heard this, and to this day they have to live not just with their failure to save those men, but the possibility that they actually cost them their lives. 

She tells us that the two bereaved mothers who refused to agree to the settlement were initially sued by ODECO, who had broken its own contract when it added conditions to the agreement when they made the payments.

The settlements these women eventually got were considerably more than they were initially offered, but they weren’t the “millions” their jealous neighbours believed they collected.

Although the Newfoundland lawyers came away from the lawsuits looking reasonably competent and compassionate, the legal and moral portrait Dodd paints of the American lawyers is extremely ugly.  Rapacious, greedy and unethical just about sums it up.

Robert F. Collins, the judge who ruled that the Canadians could not sue an American company in New Orleans, was later convicted for accepting bribes, and lawyer Benton Musselwhite had his licence to practice law suspended for misrepresentation and solicitation.

In the wake of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and the Cougar Helicopter’s crash, Dodd makes it  clear that self-regulation is just an opportunity for corporations to cut corners and ignore safety.

No doubt this has been said before, but Dodd’s combination of personal experience and academic discipline makes the message fresh and compelling.–Rick Lipsey, The Telegram, 23 March 2012 


The Ocean Ranger in The Chronicle Herald

Memories Fade to Our Peril


Thirty years ago, on Feb. 15, 1982, the oil rig Ocean Ranger sank off the coast of Newfoundland, claiming the lives of the entire crew of 84 men and shocking Canadians from coast to coast.


Yet public memories fade and — until the recent release of Susan Dodd’s book The Ocean Ranger — the story has been relegated to the obscurity of the “Extreme Weather” section of the CBC’s online archives. Even after the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, few observers spotted the parallels between the two environmental disasters.


Author Susan Dodd, assistant professor of humanities at University of Kings College, has not only resurrected the disaster, but flagged the continuing laxity of government regulations and the potential for future occurrences. She lost her older brother Jim with the sinking of the Ocean Ranger and watched, for years, as her parents pursued legal struggles with the oil companies.


Dodd’s timely book is typical of most of Fernwood’s best non-fiction titles — a personal narrative written with a potent mix of authoritative research and progressive reform zeal. Instead of simply recounting the story of “her” disaster, she delves into the complexity of the underlying issues, the holes in government safety regulations, and both the ecological damage and the collective trauma caused by the Ocean Ranger, linking it with the later colossal Gulf of Mexico spill.


Speaking recently on Jordi Morgan’s Maritime Morning radio show, it was clear that Dodd was deeply affected by the disaster and writing the book was cathartic. “The 30th anniversary memorial service in Newfoundland,” she said, “will be very emotional for both me and my family. It will bring back memories of the time that ‘the island was cloaked with grief.’”


How and why did the disaster happen? “The oil rig was presented as unsinkable, just like the Titanic,” she told listeners. “There was a blind faith in technology. It came as a complete shock, even to the government of Newfoundland.”


”The real tragedy,” she continued, “was the blind spot with regard to safety. These organizations (oil exploration companies) get way out in front of governments. They make mistakes.”


Dodd still finds it amazing that the Newfoundland government capitalized on the disaster. She credits former premier Brian Peckford for his shrewd management of the crisis. Instead of going into panic mode, he took the offensive, calling a provincial election (within a month) and blaming Ottawa, a political strategy that saw him re-turned with an increased majority of seats.


Much of the book is a detailed analysis of the aftermath. Archbishop Alphonsus L. Penny is recognized for first proposing a joint federal-provincial inquiry. Dodd does a fine job explaining the mandate and work of the royal commission headed by the wily, politically attuned Newfoundland chief justice, T. Alex Hickman.


The complex saga of the families’ financial settlements is painstakingly reconstructed, in large part, though interviews with family members of the men swallowed up by the sea. Dodd assesses the tone and effectiveness of the response from the major companies, most notably Ocean Drilling Exploration Company (ODECO), Mobil, Mitsubishi and Schlumberger.


Dodd’s family settled early, accepting $25,000, for “replacement of lost earnings.” The author describes the financial settlements as “blood money” and, to this day, finds it hard to accept that Mobil and ODECO never admitted any responsibility for the disaster or for a scandalous debacle with the lifeboats and the reported failure to alert standby vessels.


One of the book’s best chapters explains in persuasive fashion how successive Newfoundland and Labrador governments have restored people’s confidence in “the promise of oil.” It’s startling to learn how Mobil Oil turned the Ocean Ranger disaster into a tasteful memorial book, sanctioned by the Queen, and sent to all families affected by the disaster.


Equally fascinating is the tale of how Newfoundland buried the episode and acquired its current swagger. Two Newfoundland writers, Lisa Moore and Mike Heffernan, are directly implicated, according to Dodd, for producing writings that “recast the Ocean Ranger as an emblem of the old Newfoundland.” In place of the disaster now “stands a new Newfoundland, one that triumphed over its colonial past by standing up to Ottawa and to oil companies so as to seize control of their destiny by realizing the promise of oil.”


Dodd’s The Ocean Ranger also takes on the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. While the sinking of a giant oil rig and the April 2010 mega-spill appear to differ on the surface, Dodd skilfully connects the dots showing how the Ocean Ranger aftermath repeated itself with “sickening accuracy.” It’s all there from the company’s “damage control of information” to the “cozy relationship” between oil companies and the safety regulators.


Appearing amid the 30th anniversary of the disaster, Dodd’s The Ocean Ranger is bound to stir old passions and revive public concerns about industrial safety and the potential for ecological devastation either from natural disasters or massive oil spills. It issues a warning well worth heeding. “Corporate self-regulation is a myth. This myth is exposed, as such, whenever corporate risk-taking suddenly and obviously injures a community.”


—Paul W. Bennett is founding director, Schoolhouse Consulting, Halifax, and the author of seven books. 

The Chronicle Herald, Feb. 12, 2012 


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