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NORMALLY there are only two types of marine machines concerned with the discovery and recovery of oil from under the ocean floor. The first, mainly engaged in the discovery of oil, is a self-propelled vessel, sometimes of very considerable size. Apart from its towering drilling derrick, it is indistinguishable from any oceangoing cargo vessel; its purpose is to drill boreholes in areas where seismological and geological studies suggest oil may exist. The technical operation of this activity is highly complex, yet these vessels have achieved a remarkable level of success. However, they suffer from two major drawbacks. Although they are equipped with the most advanced and sophisticated navigational equipment, including bowthrust propellers, for them to maintain position in running seas, strong tides and winds when boring can be extremely difficult, and in really heavy weather operations have to be suspended.
For the actual drilling of oil and its recovery— principally its recovery—the so-called «jack-up system» is in almost universal use. This system has to be towed into position, and consists basically of a platform which carries the drilling rig, cranes, helipads and all essential services, including living accommodations, and is attached to the seabed by firmly anchored legs. In normal conditions it is extremely effective, but like the discovery ships it has drawbacks. It is not mobile. It has to suspend operations in even moderately heavy weather. And it can be used only in comparatively shallow water: the deepest is in the North Sea, where most of those rigs are to be found. This North Sea rig stands in about 450 feet of water, and the cost of increasing the length of those legs would be so prohibitive as to make oil recovery quite uneconomical, even though Americans have plans to construct a rig with 800-foot legs off the California Coast. There is also the unknown safety factor. Two such rigs have already been lost in the North Sea. The cause of those disasters has not been clearly evaluated, although it is suspected, obviously
not without basis, that there may have been design, structural or metallic faults in one or more of the legs.
And then there is the third type of oil rig— the TLP—technically, the tension leg drilling/ production platform. At the time of this story there was only one of its type in the world. The platform, the working area, was about the size of a football field—if, that is, one can imagine a triangular football field, for the platform was, in fact, an equilateral triangle. The deck was not made of steel but of a uniquely designed ferroconcrete, specially developed by a Dutch shipbuilding company. The supports for this massive platform had been designed and built in England and consisted of three enormous steel legs, each at one corner of the structure, the three being joined together by a variety of horizontal and diagonal hollow cylinders, the total combination offering such tremendous buoyancy that the working platform they supported was out of reach of even the highest waves.
From each of the bases of the three legs, three massive steel cables extended to the base of the ocean floor, where each triple set was attached to large sea-floor anchors. Powerful motors could raise or lower these cables, so that the anchors could be lowered to a depth two or three times that of most modern fixed oil derricks, which meant that this rig could operate at depths far out on the continental shelf.
The TLP had other very considerable advantages.
Its great buoyancy put the anchor cables under constant tension, and this tension practically eliminated the heaving, pitching and rolling of the platform. Thus the rig could continue operating in very severe storms, storms that would automatically stop production on any other type of derrick.
It was also virtually immune to the effects ot an undersea earthquake.
It was also mobile. It had only to up anchors and move to potentially more productive areas.
And compared to standard oil rigs, its cost of establishing position in any given spot was so negligible as to be worth no more than a passing mention.
The name of the TLP was Seawitch.
IN certain places and among certain people, the Seawitch was a very bad name indeed. But, overwhelmingly, their venom was reserved for a certain Lord Worth, a multi—some said bulti— millionaire, chairman and sole owner of North Hudson Oil Company and, incidentally, owner of the Seawitch. When his name was mentioned by any of the ten men present at that shoreside house on Lake Tahoe, it was in tones of less than hushed reverence.
Their meeting was announced in neither the national nor local press. This was due to two factors. The delegates arrived and departed either singly or in couples, and among the heterogeneous summer population of Lake Tahoe such comings and goings went unremarked or were ignored. More importantly, the delegates to the meeting were understandably reluctant that their assembly become common knowledge. The day was Friday the thirteenth, a date that boded no good for someone.
There were nine delegates present, plus their host. Four of them mattered, but only two seriously—Corral, who represented the oil and mineral leases in the Florida area, and Benson, who represented the rigs off Southern California.
Of the other six, only two mattered. One was Patinos of Venezuela; the other, known as Borosoff, of Russia, whose interest in American oil supplies could only be regarded as minimal. It was widely assumed among the others that his only interest in attending the meeting was to stir up as much trouble as possible, an assumption that was probably correct.
All ten were, in various degrees, suppliers of oil to the United States and had one common interest: to see that the price of those supplies did not drop. The last thing they ah* wanted to see was an oil-value depreciation.
Benson, whose holiday home this was and who was nominally hosting the meeting, opened the discussion.
«Gentlemen, does anyone have any objections if I bring a third party—that is, a man who represents neither ourselves nor Lord Worth—into this meeting?»
Practically everyone had, and there were some moments of bedlamic confusion: they had not only objections but very strong ones at that.
Borosoff, the Russian, said: «No, It is too dangerous.» He glanced around the group with calculated suspiciousness. «There are already too many of us privy to these discussions.»
Benson, who had not become head of one of Europe's biggest oil companies, a British-based one, just because someone had handed him the job as a birthday present, could be disconcertingly blunt.
«You, Borosoff, are the one with the slenderest claims to be present at this meeting. You might well bear that in mind. Name your suspect.» Borosoff remained silent. «Remember, gentlemen, the objective of this meeting—to maintain, at least, the present oil-price levels. The OPEC is now actively considering hiking the oil prices. .That doesn't hurt us much here hi the U.S.— we'll just hike our own prices and pass them on to the public.»
Patinos said: «You're every bit as unscrupulous and ruthless as you claim us to be.»
«Realism is not the same as rathlessness. Nobody's going to hike anything while North Hudson is around. They are already undercutting us, the majors. A slight pinch, but we feel it. If we raise our prices more and his remain steady, the slight pinch is going to increase. And if he gets some more TLPs into operation, then the pinch will begin to hurt. It will also hurt the OPEC, for the demand for your products will undoubtedly fall off.
«We all subscribe to the gentlemen's agreement among major oil companies that they will not prospect for oil in international waters—that is to say, outside their own legally and internationally recognized territorial limits. Without observance of this agreement, the possibilities of legal, diplomatic, political and international strife, ranging from scenes of political violence to outright armed confrontation, are only too real. Let us suppose that Nation A—as some countries have already done—claims all rights for all waters a hundred miles offshore from its coasts. Let us further suppose that Nation B comes along and starts drilling thirty miles outside those limits. Then let us suppose that Nation A makes a unilateral decision to extend its offshore limits to a hundred and fifty miles—and don't forget that Peru has claimed two hundred miles as its limits: the subsequent possibilities are too awesome to contemplate.
«Alas, not all are gentlemen. The chairman of the North Hudson Oil Company, Lord Worth, and his entire pestiferous board of directors would have been the first to vehemently deny any suggestion that they were gentlemen, a fact held in almost universal acceptance by their competitors in oil. They would also have denied equally vehemently that they were criminals, a fact that may or may not have been true, but it most certainly is not true now.
«He has, in short, committed two of what should be indictable offenses. 'Should,' I say. The first is unprovable; the second, although an of-fense in moral terms, is not, as yet, strictly illegal.
«The facts of the first—and what I consider much the minor offense—concerns the building of Lord Worth's TLP in Houston. It is no secret in the industry that the plans were stolen—those for the platform from the Mobil Oil Company, those for the legs and anchoring systems from the Chevron Oilfield Research Company. But, as I say, unprovable. It is commonplace for new inventions and developments to occur at two or more places simultaneously, and he can always claim that his design team, working in secret, beat the others to the punch.»