Across the Table: An International Oil Negotiator Navigates the Choppy Waters of Global Intrigue

Across the Table: An International Oil Negotiator Navigates the Choppy Waters of Global Intrigue

by William A. Young

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781632990419
Publisher: Greenleaf Book Group, LLC
Publication date: 08/24/2015
Pages: 250
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.57(d)

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Across the Table

An International Oil Negotiator Navigates The Choppy Waters of Global Intrigue


By William A. Young

River Grove Books

Copyright © 2015 William A. Young
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-63299-041-9



CHAPTER 1

Brinksmanship in Baku


Moscow in The Winter Resembled A Black-and-White film, drab with little color. The snow along the city streets had long since been sullied by layers of charcoal gray road grit and by the belching exhaust of passing cars and trucks. I liked to think that there were only three possible scenarios on any given day in the Russian capital during the winter — it was either snowing, had just snowed, or was about to snow. A fresh luster of snow was a blessing since it would conceal, at least temporarily, some of the less aesthetically pleasing aspects of the city, and it also meant normally that the temperature was edging upward toward the freezing point. No matter how many layers of clothing one wore during the coldest days of the winter months, Moscow's unrelenting and cruel wind penetrated them with ease, like a knife slicing through butter.

I had always been fascinated by the Soviet Union, a society that represented in so many ways a mirror image of my own country, the United States. The USSR was ostensibly still a superpower in the late 1980s, though the cracks in its foundation were readily apparent, and it was soon to disintegrate into a number of autonomous nation-states, some of which remained quite dependent upon, and closely aligned with, Moscow. The people of the Soviet Union were generally very friendly. Muscovites, in particular, seemed so much like their Western counterparts. They were unfortunate victims of a system that neither encouraged nor rewarded risk taking and that failed to allocate resources — financial, human, and material — efficiently using the laws of supply and demand. The opportunity to learn more about the culture and history of the Soviet Union was a powerful lure, however, and I jumped at the chance to work on a project in Azerbaijan when the opportunity presented itself in late 1990.

At the time, I was vice president of negotiations for Amoco Caspian, the subsidiary of Chicago-based Amoco Corporation established specifically to work in Azerbaijan. I was to lead any negotiations which resulted from our business development efforts there. My predecessor had recently left Amoco, and I gladly accepted the chance to fill his shoes.

The USSR was a vast country with abundant natural resources. Azerbaijan, situated on the west coast of the landlocked Caspian Sea, had long been a regional hub for oil and gas production. Amoco was one of the more active companies in the Soviet Union at the time and had a handful of teams pursuing projects in widely dispersed sections of the country. Some were pure exploration plays, but most were less risky development opportunities with considerable exploration upside. Although a number of large oil and gas fields already had been discovered and delineated, the Soviets could only proceed with full-scale development if they could attract the requisite foreign investment and technical expertise. It was recognized that a great deal of front-end work would be required to launch any of these projects. Both petroleum laws and commercial understanding were embryonic at best and in many cases altogether lacking. On the other hand, the financial rewards could be correspondingly great. Of course, in the case of the Soviet Union, given the sizeable political and other risks involved, some of us asked ourselves now and again if being "fast followers" instead of leaders might be the wiser course of action. The decision, though, was "full speed ahead."

The USSR and Azerbaijan oil and gas ministries were jointly sponsoring a competitive tender (auction) to award to a company — or consortium of companies — the rights to develop the Azeri oil field located offshore from the Apsheron Peninsula north of the Azerbaijan capital of Baku. The field had been discovered about a decade earlier but had not been developed, since the authorities lacked both the financial capital and technical capability to undertake this task on their own in these water depths.

Our mission in Baku was to purchase a data package that contained key information, both commercial and technical (e.g., seismic data, geologic maps, and well logs), upon which to base a competitive bid. Amoco was eager to get a toehold in the Azerbaijan sector of the Caspian, which was thought to contain substantial additional hydrocarbon potential. Modern-day drilling and production technology likely would result also in recovery of a larger percentage of the oil in place.

So, in January 1991, I made my first journey to the USSR since a holiday tour in the mid-'70s. The current trip also marked my inaugural visit to Baku, Azerbaijan, known as the "Paris of the Caucasus." I was accompanied by the head of Eurasian New Ventures (a geologist by training), a lawyer, and a geophysicist, who also doubled as our interpreter. We flew to Sheremetyevo II Airport in Moscow and then traveled the 52 kilometers (about 31 miles) by minivan to Vnukovo, an aviation facility which, at the time, primarily served destinations to the south. Vnukovo was located roughly due south of Sheremetyevo Airport and southwest of central Moscow.

Massive apartment blocks, many constructed during Stalin's reign and containing myriad virtually identical cramped flats, dotted our route. These structures were not pretty, but as if to compensate, the landscape was punctuated as well by the occasional Russian Orthodox church, with its bulbous steeple topped with a gold cross glistening in the sunlight. I reminded myself that many of the churches in Russia had been converted to museums, as the state did not recognize religion.

As we sped along, I reflected back on my 1975 trip to Russia when, as a US Naval officer, I had participated in an American Express tour of Moscow and Leningrad, as St. Petersburg was then known. Those were heady days when the period of détente had signaled a thaw in the icy cold relations between the US and the Soviet Union. The two countries entered into the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty II (SALT II) talks and began a cooperative effort in space that culminated with the docking of two Apollo and Soyuz spacecraft in Earth orbit in July 1975.

Still, there were the reminders of oppression back then — basic freedoms denied by a government preoccupied with maintaining iron-fisted control over its population. During my visit, I had observed an old lady, probably in her mid to late '70s, laying a small bunch of flowers at an exterior altar adjacent to a church. I started to photograph her as she knelt, but she spotted me, arose, and abruptly ran off down an alley, apparently fearing possible reprisal from the authorities should she later be identified as having prayed in public. I felt terrible for having prompted an elderly lady to flee from the church.

As it happened, my tour of Russia coincided with the celebration in Moscow of the thirtieth anniversary of VE Day (Victory in Europe). The Soviets played a vital role in World War II, forcing Nazi Germany to fight a two-front war. However, the Russians paid a heavy price, sustaining nearly twenty-four million deaths among its military and civilian ranks, over fifteen times as many as the three other Allies (US, UK, and France) combined. As with most key anniversaries in Moscow, the obligatory parade of tanks and other weaponry in Red Square was intended to demonstrate the country's military might. Drilling nearby, in final preparation for their participation in the parade, were legions of children from the Soviet Young Pioneers organization (the equivalent of scouting), their necks adorned with bright red scarves.

The USSR felt like a parallel universe, yet one entirely separate from the rest of the world. The average Russian could not travel abroad and had only fleeting glimpses of what life must be like outside the Iron Curtain, such as when a recording of the Beatles would surface periodically. Though I suspected that they likely had no clue what the lyrics meant, young Russians would delight in singing along to "She Loves You" as they danced into the wee hours of the morning at nightclubs choked with thick smoke from their unfiltered cigarettes. Heavy drinking was rampant, especially among the male population. In a recent study published in the British Journal of Ophthalmology, of the 51,000 Russian males studied, 25 percent failed to live beyond age fifty-five. I can only imagine that depression was widespread as well and largely left untreated. Nobody smiled much, perhaps a sign of how tough and unfulfilling their lives were.

English fluency was limited to those who had direct contact with Westerners, such as Intourist guides who led all tour groups once they set foot on Soviet soil. Foreign tour providers, such as American Express Travel, had no choice but to hand over the reins of control of their tours to Intourist upon arrival in Russia. The Intourist-operated hotels were almost certainly bugged, and the Soviets would have been well aware that I was a US Naval officer even though I had listed my profession generically as "office worker" on my visa application. I shared a room with another officer, and we were careful to avoid discussing anything classified or that might otherwise be of value to the Soviet regime.

The storefronts had glass windows, but that was where any similarity with Western retail outlets ended. Merchants would typically stack identical boxes in a pyramid in the window. Marketing was completely unnecessary, as consumers had few choices. Food was basic — meat and potatoes mainly, and of course borscht, the ubiquitous Russian soup containing beets as its primary ingredient. Soviet ice cream was delicious, but flavors were generally limited to vanilla and chocolate. Moscow restaurants, denoted by the Russian word pectopah, offered a less-than-inviting exterior. At night, most streets were dimly lit, surprising for a city of its size and influence. The inside of the restaurants was not much better. I recall dining in a dingy Georgian restaurant, ordering from a menu with no pictures and only the Cyrillic characters of the Russian language. No translation was available and nobody spoke any English. Accordingly, my selections were purely random, and when the lukewarm food arrived at my table, I still could not identify what I was about to consume.

A few everyday items were highly prized in Moscow. In the mid-1970s, one could exchange a mere stick of chewing gum for a handful of Soviet medals, and a pair of blue jeans was considered priceless. "Berioska shops" sold artwork and crafts to visiting tourists for hard currency.

Women did the same heavy work as men (for example, driving a bulldozer, which I witnessed firsthand), and the Russians proudly proclaimed that they were ahead of the West in "equal pay for equal work." They were probably right.


* * *

As I reflected on what I had observed on my 1975 trip, I was indeed curious how much the Soviet Union had changed in the roughly fifteen years since my previous visit. However, I did not have long to ponder this question. Jarring me abruptly out of my jet lag – induced daydream, a colleague in the front seat of the minivan broke the silence, pointing out a beautiful stand of white birch as we passed through a wooded stretch along Moscow's ring road.

"Yes, the birch trees are gorgeous," I freely admitted. As a teenager, I had enjoyed the stunning scenery in the movie Dr. Zhivago, based on Boris Pasternak's novel of the same name. Never mind that the movie was filmed in Canada rather than the Soviet Union. I tried to picture the birch with fresh green foliage in the springtime once all the dirty snow-banks had succumbed to the growing warmth of the sun and daylight had begun to stretch deep into the evening.

The ring road allowed us to make pretty good time, avoiding the traffic congestion of central Moscow. However, spring remained just a distant aspiration — a glimmer of hope — on this cold January afternoon. The sun hung low in the southern sky, and a gusty and bone-chilling northerly wind picked up litter and carried it across the highway. Men huddled along the side of the road, rubbing their hands together to keep warm, offering petrol for sale from large containers, a crude substitute (no pun intended) for a modern-day service station.

When we arrived at Vnukovo Airport, an antiquated and frankly rather dingy facility, we approached the Aeroflot counter where Svetlana, an attractive tall, blonde agent, informed us that the flight to Baku was already fully booked. We explained that we had important meetings in Baku the next morning and must travel there that evening in order not to miss them.

Understanding but apparently not appreciating our predicament, the stone-faced Svetlana inquired in perfect English but with a heavy Russian accent, "Will you be paying in hard currency?" She must have been saving her rare smiles for special occasions. Laboring behind the ticket counter at Vnukovo was clearly not one of those.

"Da!" we chimed in, practically in unison, as if we had rehearsed our response. When we assured the agent that we had come armed with US dollars, she indicated that she "would find us seats," to our collective relief and amazement. Airport security was almost nonexistent in those days, and we were able to drive our van right out onto the ice-covered tarmac where our bags were loaded onto the plane.

Later, after we had boarded the aircraft and wedged ourselves into the tiny rows of tattered and stained, cloth-covered seats, we stared out the window in disbelief as a uniformed airport official led a lady and two young children across the tarmac back to the terminal building. The realization hit us that our actions likely had precipitated the entirely unintended consequence of a Soviet woman and her family having to deplane and await a later flight. We were sickened by the thought, but it was too late realistically to do anything about it.

Our Tupolev-154 jet, stalwart of the Aeroflot fleet for decades, taxied and took off steeply into the twilight skies, banking sharply to the left. Once aloft, darkness quickly descended. The flight to Baku lacked any entertainment, unless one was to count people-watching, but at least it was also uneventful. About midway through the three-hour journey, the flight attendants circulated through the cabin to offer the passengers what appeared to be chicken broth. Since the crew had only enough plastic cups for about one-third of the travelers, they were forced to reuse the cups. I had previously observed Muscovites, while on my 1970s tour of the city, lining up during a heat wave to obtain water from a vending machine, using just one shared plastic cup. What an efficient way to spread illness! The prospect of sharing a plastic cup with the masses did not appeal then, and neither did it now. I looked up at the flight attendant and politely declined, "Nyet, spasiba."

A bit bored, I looked around to size up the passengers. Most of the men sported bushy black mustaches, had facial features bearing an uncanny resemblance to those of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, and even wore the same beret-like caps. Iraq lay several hundred miles southwest of Baku where Operation Desert Storm, with the objective of liberating Kuwait from the grasp of the Iraqi dictator, had begun in earnest. Baku was also downwind of Iraq, should any chemical weapons be deployed by the Iraqi regime. I reminded myself that any such chemicals would have fully dispersed long before reaching Azerbaijan, but still the relative proximity of hostilities was slightly discomforting. As with the rest of the USSR, Azerbaijan did not officially recognize any religion, but the majority of its citizens were Muslim. I wondered where the Azeri sympathies lay in this conflict.

Baku was a fascinating city whose history was intertwined with the evolution and development of the international oil industry. Oil was recovered from surface diggings as early as the tenth century, and partly owing to deregulation of commercial extraction in 1872, production soared. By the beginning of the twentieth century, roughly half the world's oil came from the Baku area.

Upon our arrival at Baku's antiquated airport, we waited impatiently for about twenty minutes for our local agent. However, neither he nor his vehicle were anywhere in sight. It was now late evening, and we were exhausted. We had been traveling continuously since our departure from Houston the prior evening. It was clear that we needed to find an alternative form of transportation to reach our hotel.

Our interpreter, Peter, an American geophysicist from Serbia originally, convinced an ambulance driver to take us there. An emergency vehicle was certainly a creative, if somewhat inelegant, conveyance to our intended destination. I figured if we were involved in a crash, we were well-positioned for the trip to the hospital! I craned my neck to peer out the window to gain a first impression of my surroundings, but streetlights were few and a bit of mist had descended, reducing the visibility considerably.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Across the Table by William A. Young. Copyright © 2015 William A. Young. Excerpted by permission of River Grove Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Contents

Introduction,
ONE Brinksmanship in Baku,
TWO Surprise! "You Must Defend Your Proposal on Live Nationwide Soviet TV",
THREE Summoned to the President's Office,
FOUR The Not-So-Silky Road to Unitization,
FIVE Blind Alleys and Threats,
SIX Dangling the Lure of an Oil Export Pipeline through Georgia,
SEVEN In Pursuit of Natural Gas off Russia's Sakhalin Island,
EIGHT The "Wild West" Comes to Moscow,
NINE Oil or Nothing: Opportunity Knocks East of the Urals,
TEN Intersecting Destinies: A Near Miss in London,
ELEVEN It Takes Two to Tangle: Vietnam during the US-Led Embargo,
TWELVE Sea Slugs, Mao Tai, and Intense Negotiations,
THIRTEEN Negotiating for a PTA Project in Guangdong,
FOURTEEN Surrounded,
FIFTEEN To the Ends of the Earth: Following in Rockefeller's Footsteps,
SIXTEEN Concluding a Deal amid Philippine Chaos,
SEVENTEEN An Imperfect Union in Buenos Aires,
EIGHTEEN In the Land of the Pharaohs and Beyond,
NINETEEN The Only Constant in the Negotiating Environment Is Change,
APPENDIX Negotiations Principles: A Reference Guide,
Notes,
About the Author,

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