Monday, February 11, 2013

City of oil platforms: the rise and fall of Stalin's Atlantis

The Caspian coast of Azerbaijan has been famed for its rich oil resources since ancient times but The petrochemical industry didn't take off here until 1870 after Russia conquered the territory. In the years that followed, industrialists like Ludvig Nobel and the Rothschild brothers transformed the capital Baku into an oriental version of the French Mediterranean jewel of Nice
In 1941, Azerbaijan, then part of the Soviet Union, was already supplying 175 million barrels of crude oil a year -- 75% of the country's entire oil production. That's why German forces fought so hard to try to seize the city. They failed

Decripit and ill-maintained oil extraction equipment still litters Azerbaijan's oil patch

After the war, Soviet engineers took a closer look at a reef that mariners called the "Black Rock." In November, 1949, they struck top-quality oil at a depth of 1,100 meters below the seabed and shortly thereafter, the world's first offshore oil platform was built at the spot, now renamed Neft Dashlari, or "oily rock." "Platform" is a hopelessly inadequate word for the many-armed monster of steel and timber that gradually spread across the waves of the sea, which is only 20 meters deep on average, over the following years

In its heyday Neft Dashlari consisted of 2,000 drilling platforms connected by countless bridges that stretched over 300 kilometers

The foundation of the main settlement consists of seven sunken ships including "Zoroaster," the world's first oil tanker, built in Sweden. In Neft Dashlari's heyday, some 2,000 drilling platforms were spread in a 30-kilometer circle, joined by a network of bridge viaducts spanning 300 kilometers. Trucks thundered across the bridges and eight-story apartment blocks were built for the 5,000 workers who sometimes spent weeks on Neft Dashlari. The voyage back to the mainland could take anything between six and twelve hours, depending on the type of ship. The island had its own beverage factory, soccer pitch, library, bakery, laundry, 300-seat cinema, bathhouse, vegetable garden and even a tree-lined park for which the soil was brought from the mainland

The noble worker: statues like this still testify to Neft Dashlari's former status as a model industrial project

But there are few things as precarious as a world built on water and oil. The collapse of the Soviet Union ushered in the decline of this floating city as new oilfields were discovered elsewhere and the price of oil began to fluctuate. The workforce has halved to 2,500, and most of the rigs are now out of use or can't be reached because the bridges leading to them have collapsed. Of the 300 kilometers of roads, only 45 kilometers remain usable, and even they have fallen into disrepair. During a flood a few years ago, many apartments were submerged up to the second story

This decrepit hotel still stands on Neft Dashlari

A worker on Neft Dashlari still earns some $130 a month, twice as much as someone employed in the same job on the mainland. But the plant hasn't been operating efficiently for years. Submerged steel constructions pose a threat to shipping, oil leaks abound and equipment is falling apart
To the government, the place is still the proud, closely-guarded secret it was in Soviet times. It is still very hard for foreigners to gain access to the city, which isn't even shown on Google Maps
News article here.