The Risk Premium

Russell Spell thought he knew what he was getting into when he signed on with a Houston company to build a pipeline in Nigeria, where corruption and violence are commonplace and the safety of workers cannot be guaranteed. But he never imagined he would become a hostage—literally—to America’s dependence on foreign oil.
Illustration by Mario Wagner

In the early morning of February 18, 2006, Russell Spell was sleeping on a barge off the Nigerian coast when he awoke to the sound of gunfire. A longtime employee of Willbros Group, an international oil and gas contractor, Spell supervised workers laying an offshore pipeline for Shell. His shift was noon to midnight, so he was still in his bunk when he heard the sound of bullets exploding into metal, a commotion so loud it seemed as if a helicopter was landing inside his cabin. The day had dawned placid and sweet, the barge an offshore oasis from the fetid air and roiling gas flares visible on the coast at Shell’s Forcados export terminal. Spell had no idea he was about to become a pawn in the increasingly violent war for control of the world’s diminishing petroleum resources.

Spell, then 41, was pale and impish, a small, shy man with a wry sense of humor who still had the broad shoulders and bowed arms of the welder he had been for much of his adult life. Born and raised in the East Texas oil field town of Silsbee, he didn’t want for much and generally took what came his way with equanimity. By 2006, he had worked in Nigeria for almost a decade. He knew the country posed its share of dangers to foreign workers, but he left the worry about kidnappings, robberies, and killings to his company and to his wife, Regina. Spell did not, for instance, pay much mind to State Department travel advisories, like the one that, just a day before the attack on his barge, warned American citizens to stay away. “The lack of law and order in Nigeria poses considerable risks to travelers,” it said. “Violent crime committed by ordinary criminals, as well as by persons in police and military uniforms, can occur throughout the country.”

Spell knew the people of the Niger Delta were desperately poor, while corrupt officials lived like Saudi princes. He knew the air and water were poisoned because multinational oil companies had exploited the region’s rich reserves for many years without a care. He understood that certain palms were generously greased for what he called “community relations.” But he had never had any trouble personally. He liked the Nigerian people and loved the routine and camaraderie of being offshore with longtime friends. And working in Nigeria was steady; you weren’t shut down for weather, like in the Gulf of Mexico. Spell was scheduled for three months on and one month off and made good money—$80,000 a year. It was enough to buy his family a brick house on a cul-de-sac within walking distance of Lake Conroe. His front door had a leaded-glass window that sparkled with rainbows in the afternoon sun; his living room featured a big-screen TV. Spell had never finished college, but his kids were in gifted-and-talented programs at good schools. His wife didn’t have to work. He never asked himself whether the job was worth the risk because the answer seemed self-evident.

Now, as the gunfire drew closer, Spell jumped out of his

More Texas Monthly

Loading, please wait...