The Ocean Ranger
Remaking the Promise of Oil
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