Review in The Newfoundland Quarterly

The Ocean Ranger
Remaking the Promise of Oil

By Susan Dodd  

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

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