Wednesday, 8 April 2015

société de pétrochimie

As the giants of the petroleum industry—and there be only giants these days, are set to devour one another—this internecine struggle couched in the usual regional conflicts but probably more owing to plummeting oil prices and potential for profit, I wondered where this industry’s and culture’s roots lie.  As recently as the 1970s, I found, before the series of mergers that created Big Oil—too big to fail and top of the food-chain, there was still a remnant of the world’s first petrochemical concern.
Though oil has become inextricably associated with the Middle East, with a spate of other contenders for seconds and for most of the modern history that this commodity has fuelled and lubricated, European deposits were acknowledged to be primarily in the Carpathian planes that spreads from present-day Poland in the west and Ukraine in the east, the discovery as it were and recognition as a valuable commodity can be more or less credited to the Alsatian enterprise, Antar, originally incorporated in 1745. The French interpreter to their ambassadorial mission to Switzerland, a man called Louis Pierre Ancillon de la Sablonnière, was exposed to a small pitch-mining operation near Neuchâtel and learnt of a similar natural bitumen spring on the French-German border, near his homeland. Sablonnière bought the estate with its dirty brown streams. Early uses for this substance included pavement, water-proofing ships’ hulls and sewer-systems—later in the development of photography and synthetic dyes but evidence of its use and understanding reaches far back to the practise of mummification in Ancient Egypt and the mysterious formula for Greek fire.  Centuries passed before the refining process was advanced enough to harness the energy latent in petroleum, but progress marches onwards and the belief that enthralled certain individuals for the tar-pits never faltered. Sablonnière began prospecting around his new far and sold stocks to support his venture.  The name Antar was a much later addition to the original charter, coming in the aftermath of World War I and the rise of the automobile, with the company specialising in petroleum and motor oils, opting to drop its old identity named after the commune where the first mine was located.
Antar may get its name from the pre-Islamic Arab hero and chanticleer Antarah ibn Shaddad (The sons of the prophet were valiant and bold, and quite unaccustomed to fear, but of all the most reckless, or so I am told, was Abdul Abulbul Amir) whose memory was popularised at the time with a symphony by Nikolai Rimski-Korsakov.  I would have guess the super-giant star Antares (meaning equal-to-Mars due to its relative brightness and reddish hue) but the celestial body is named for the poet too.  It is also interesting to note how the logo evolved from something generically heraldic that could represent anything but in fact is not a device associated with anything at all to a little mascot who is either supposed to be a Gaulish warrior or one of our old friends, the long-haired, blond Merovingians.  Moreover, the family that traditionally keeps the keys to the Church of the Nativity since centuries are held to be of the extraction of the clan of Antarah himself.  These connections, however rarefied, are much finer things I think than some leviathan of Exxon-Mobil-Esso-Shell-Fina-Total-Total-BP.