The 20 million gallons of oil that have spilled into the Gulf of Mexico constitute one of the world’s worst environmental disasters. For Jessica Cohen, however, it might prove to be the high point of her career so far.
Cohen, who is from Stanmore, has been working as a contractor for BP on pipeline projects in the Gulf since May. Her job started just a fortnight after the oil started to leak from BP’s underwater well, costing the company an estimated £21 billion and chief executive Tony Hayward his job.
The 42-year-old engineer, who is based in Houston, Texas, has had an important role in stopping the leak. “To begin with I wasn’t working directly on the capping, but it was certainly all hands on deck. I’ve just spent two weeks working off-shore. It’s been exciting and quite remarkable,” she says.
Cohen’s unconventional career choice — how many Jewish girls from north-west London are frontline workers in the macho oil industry? — came after she realised her talent for mathematics and physics made her ideal mechanical engineer material. Now, with 20 years’ experience under her belt, she is facing her sternest challenge — developing plans to be implemented in the event of more spillages. “If there is an incident like this there is no single solution. You put different teams to work on different options. I have been looking at a contingency plan pipeline. I spend about 50 per cent of my time in the office and the rest in a yard with gearboxes and valves, or off-shore. ”
Cohen believes American criticism, led by President Obama, of BP’s handling of the spill, is unfair. “Not everything in the American media has been true,” she insists. “I believe BP has acted with a tremendous amount of integrity and honesty. They’ve maybe been too honest even. They have got on with fixing the leak pragmatically. Everyone recognises this kind of capping and clean-up has never been done before.
“For me it’s the most challenging thing I’ve ever had to do. You are pushing your body physically and mentally. You are working without breaks. Everyone is fired up and wants it to work. We have to get it done and it has to be safe. All eyes are on us.”
At school in Northwood, Middlesex, Cohen’s fascination with engineering put her at odds with the interests of her classmates. “I realised quite early on that everything you see in the world has had an engineer create it or build it. It wasn’t common for a little girl to be interested in such things. Everyone at school wanted to be a secretary or a nursery nurse.”
She went on to study at Imperial College, London, before securing a placement to work with British Aerospace.
She married in 2001 at Finchley United Synagogue and that year she and her husband moved to Texas. “We thought we would do it for maybe a year,” she says. “I began working in construction management, building pipelines, buying components and gearboxes. ”
Before Texas, there was a stint in France and Italy buying valves for a BP pipeline. Jobs in Ghana and Equatorial Guinea followed that, but few postings were as stressful, or eye-opening, as the seven weeks she spent as the only woman on a ship in the North Sea.
“Before I was married I worked for a company installing pipelines and worked off-shore on a construction ship. There were 400 men and me. It was hell. We were off-shore for weeks and I could not understand why, even after a month, I was still getting wolf-whistles and all sorts. But when I got back to shore I realised that these guys do not see women for 10 months of the year. It was a big moment for me in realising the impact I had in the industry. As a woman, you have to prove yourself more because it’s such a male-dominated industry. The last few years have been much better, though.”
Despite being thousands of miles from home, Cohen claims Houston, the fourth largest city in the US, is not that dissimilar to Stanmore. “There’s an Orthodox shul here that we belong to. It’s leafy Houston we live in, so it’s a traditional community. It’s not all that different. Yes, they wear Stetsons and carry guns, but you get used to it.”