Norwegian state oil company Statoil, like international companies all over the world, took a calculated risk when it decided to do business far from the stormy but politically stable Norwegian continental shelf. This week, with Statoil deeply involved in a hostage crisis in Algeria, its chief executive Helge Lund has been caught in the company’s own worst nightmare linked to global expansion and diversification.
Lund, who was traveling in Asia earlier this week, hastily flew back to Norway after hearing that a gas plant Statoil operates in the Sahara Desert with BP of the UK and Sonatrach of Algeria had been attacked by a group of radical Islamist terrorists. Since then he’s been directly involved in hectic efforts to resolve a chaotic, frightening and, literally, “life or death” situation.
He and other Statoil officials have repeatedly claimed that the most important thing on their minds is the effort to try to ensure the safety of the Statoil employees held hostage and to assist their families. It’s been a virtually impossible job, with conflicting and unsubstantiated information from the scene of the attack on the In Amenas gas plant. On Thursday night, Lund had to admit to anxious family members assembled in Bergen that he couldn’t give them “what they want most:” Confirmation of the status of their loved ones.
“Statoil is in a situation where we don’t know if we’ll get all our employees safely back,” he’d said earlier in the evening. On Friday morning, one more Norwegian and three Algerian employees had been rescued but eight other Norwegians were still unaccounted for.
After two intense days, and the stunning news that Algerian military forces had launched a counterattack on the terrorists, Lund traveled from Statoil’s headquarters in Stavanger up to Bergen to meet the families of his employees face-to-face. Most have been praising Statoil officials, who set up a crisis center for them in Bergen and in other locations around the country, for the support and attention they were getting. Now they could speak with Statoil’s boss, and he was clearly moved by the emotional encounter.
“It’s demanding to meet people in such a situation,” Lund told reporters afterwards. “I think it helps just to have a conversation between fellow human beings, even though I can’t fulfill their greatest wish, to get some clarification. When I can’t offer that, the next best thing is just to be there.”
He described their situation as “indescribably difficult” and that one of his goals was simply to listen to their concerns. The surprise military operation earlier in the day had delayed his planned visit with those the Norwegians call pårørende, or those most affected, so he didn’t arrive until around 9pm and then spent a few hours with them.
“I think everyone can realize what sort of uncertainty they feel,” Lund said. “Unfortunately I can only give them limited information and explain how we’re working and trying to verify what information we have. We have also discussed each individual’s personal situation.” Each family has been assigned a full-time contact person from within Statoil’s personnel department and Lund said his “most important message” to them was that “we and Norwegian authorities are doing all we can to handle this situation in the best possible way.”
Risk of doing business
They are responsible for the situation that erupted in a remote desert area where jihadists are known for smuggling drugs, fighting for power and carrying out kidnappings. Statoil’s global expansion over the years makes it vulnerable to political unrest and crime in the far-flung areas where it’s operating, not least in countries like Algeria, Libya, Nigeria, Angola, Iran and Azerbaijan.
Statoil has pointed out that all its employees in high-risk areas have undergone training for handling security treats and even for being taken hostage. Statoil is widely viewed as having the competence to evaluate risk, with an in-house department handling it, and security at the In Amenas plant was considered to be high.
The terrorists struck nonetheless and Lund and his colleagues are left to deal with the consequences, ultimately, of their business decisions. Lund is acutely aware that the families waiting for word about the captured Statoil employees want reassurance, but had to admit “I can’t give them that now.”
Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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