From Scottish Socialist Voice
By Roz Paterson
Doctored safety reports, corroding equipment, a toothless regulator and the suppression of inconvenient documents – this, says former Shell International group auditor, is how it is on the North Sea’s UK sector.
Here, Roz Paterson considers the evidence against Shell and asks why, when the workers at the oil-face raised the alarm over safety, and their fears were echoed in a detailed, in-depth report, no one listened.
On 11 September 2003, Keith Moncrieff and Sean McCue, two offshore workers on the Shell-operated Brent Bravo platform in the North Sea, were dispatched to the utility leg to inspect a temporary repair, in truth a “quick fix, short-cut repair” that didn’t even meet basic industry standards, on a safety critical degasser pipeline.
Simultaneously, production started up on the platform, because the Permit To Work system, which should have ensured that production stayed shut down while the men were there, failed. A valve also failed and 2.5 tonnes of deadly gas were released in seconds. Keith and Sean never made it back alive.
On 21 December 2004, a now retired Shell International group auditor wrote to a Shell senior executive, “I wonder, when receiving your CBE for services to the oil industry, did you not have just a tiny twinge of guilt about your disservice to that industry?
“Your scant regard for the duty of care to the 156 people on Brent Bravo who were never informed of the ‘intolerable’ risks they ran in just being on board that facility at that time?”
Keith’s granddaughter was born just hours after his death. His fiancée has never recovered from the loss, not just of her lover, but her best friend. Keith and Sean’s death was, ruled a sheriff in January this year at the conclusion of a Fatal Accident Inquiry (FAI), “entirely avoidable”.
Who was to blame? Shell, one of the richest corporations on the planet, was to blame. In the name of vast, almost unimaginable profits, the company’s senior man in the UK, Malcolm Brinded, instituted a system wherein nothing, not even critical safety maintenance, got in the way of meeting highly lucrative targets.
Leaks were patched up, essential maintenance was postponed and postponed, safety records were knowingly doctored, workers and junior managers were bullied into compliance, and a damning safety audit, conducted in 1999, was ignored and its team leader removed.
Now that report, the Platform Safety Management Review (PSMR), and the man who led the inspection team, and the author of the above-quoted letter, Bill Campbell, has returned to haunt the oil multinational and, in particular, the senior managers who allowed safety to become such a secondary issue that two men lost their lives and hundreds of others didn’t only by chance.
Jake Molloy, general secretary of the Oil Industry Liaison Committee (OILC), the offshore workers’ union, told the Voice several times that it was only a “matter of luck” that there had not been an accident on the scale of the Piper Alpha disaster since 1988, and that the safety situation had in fact deteriorated dramatically. Yet the public perception was that the industry had learnt its lessons, and was much more safety conscious as a result.
Lord Cullen’s report, written up in the wake of Piper Alpha, called for a number of things, including a new safety regime, in which each platform would make up a Safety Case, listing all the danger flashpoints and what they would do to render them safe.
However, and this was to prove crucial, he decreed that oil companies and operators would be self-regulating, thus relying on them being honourable, and doing what they said they were doing with regard to their Safety Case.
“And this might have been a good system,” Jake said to the Voice this week, “if financial rewards had not been in conflict with achieving safety goals.”
Put simply, you cannot squeeze maximum profits from an oil platform and keep it safe at the same time, as repairs and maintenance can often lead to production being shut down, which impinges on performance targets, which drives down profits, albeit temporarily.
For an industry that generates £1million profit an hour, you’d think temporary shutdown was a minor issue. You’d think wrong.
The new ‘safety culture’ came to light during the detailed appraisal of documents and reports, and the conducting of 250 interviews that comprised the PSMR. Headed up by Bill Campbell, the PSMR team found a litany of abuses of the system.
OILC had recently called a press conference, to flag up offshore workers’ concerns about safety on oil platforms. Shell, and even some trade unionists, accused OILC of “scaremongering”.
The PSMR was to discover they were doing anything but; in fact, what they found was “much, much worse” even than OILC thought.
On Brent Bravo alone, they found a stunningly low level of safety compliance – 14 per cent, as opposed to the 100 per cent that the safety log claimed. Safety systems were overridden, the Permit to Work system, which ensures that workers are not operating in conflict with each other, was violated, the fire main, which should be reserved for use if a fire breaks out, was being used routinely to supply cooling water to drilling, the emergency generator was of “questionable reliability’ and so on.
Not only were safety breaches everywhere to be seen, but also safety records were knowingly being doctored. One example relates to an emergency shut down (ESD) valve, which the safety record assured had passed its test. In fact, it wasn’t working.
How could this be allowed to happen?
Managers told Campbell that Shell platforms were being “driven from the beach” – that is, by executives in offices in Aberdeen and London, rather than by those at the oil-face.
“It was a striking outcome of all PSMR interviews, from technician to General Manager, that whatever the safety concerns, the last thing on everybody’s mind was to shut down; to shut down was anathema, never to be considered,” wrote Campbell in his 2004 letter, to Malcolm Brinded, at the time the most senior Shell executive in the UK.
In order to avoid shutdown, a new acronym began to appear on the handover documents from shift to shift. TFA – Touch Fuck All – meant that equipment should not be repaired, as this could lead to production shutdown.
TFA meant that 75 per cent of safety critical elements – such as fire and gas detection systems – were not being properly maintained, and 30-40 per cent of this equipment had failed tests.
In some cases, if equipment failed a test, the bar was simply lowered until it did. This was known as ‘goal-widening’.
The workers complied because they had no choice. Only around a third of them were unionised and almost all of them were on short-term contracts. Workers who made a fuss generally came face to face with another acronym. NRB – Not Required Back.
Managers complied because they were bullied into it.
Brinded needed this compliance, having negotiated a gas nomination contract that promised huge rewards for meeting production targets but punitive fines for failure. Thus, Brent platforms had to be “sweated” to fulfil the contract, and there was no room for safety.
The PSMR report, ironically commissioned by Shell, promised to deliver bodyblow to the corporate regime under Brinded. So they ducked it. When the final report was presented, on 22 October 1999, Brinded failed to be present, as did two senior managers.
The PSMR team asked that production on Brent Bravo be suspended while safety was reviewed, and that the General Manager, Asset Manager and his Deputy, who must carry the can for safety on the platform, be suspended. Nothing happened. “We had reached an impasse.”
Worse, Bill Campbell, a man of 40 years’ experience in the safety field, and highly regarded throughout the Shell organisation for his integrity and professionalism, was told not to come back.
Incidentally, the men that the PSMR requested be suspended were not just kept on, they were promoted.
Even worse than that, none of the safety issues detailed in the PSMR were being addressed when Campbell took stock a month later.
Instead, another, internal ‘investigation’ was conducted, which found the PSMR findings “not verified”.
Shell then and since has firmly refuted Campbell’s allegations.
The oil installations in the Brent field were built in the 1970s. As such, and in such hostile terrain, they have sustained a great deal of wear and tear.
As time passes, they deteriorate more and more and thus the situation as recorded in the PSMR in 1999 was worse by 2003, when Keith Moncrieff and Sean McCue met their deaths.
Campbell was hardly surprised. “Someone,” he says, “was going to get it – it was just a matter of time.”
Shortly after the deaths, and a year after his retirement, he was called into a meeting by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).
They seemed shocked by the PSMR report that, it transpired, they were only seeing for the first time now. Shell had never seen fit to forward it onto them.
They were further alarmed that Shell had insisted all was well while knowing it was anything but. “To say they were unhappy would be an understatement.”
Not least because there had also clearly been failings on their part.
“Despite being pointed in the right direction by the OILC, (the HSE) had been proved incompetent as a Regulator during this period.”
Yet, incredibly, the HSE subsequently did little. They had the power to demand an immediate shutdown of Brent Bravo. They didn’t exercise it.
They had all the information to hand, but they didn’t proceed with a prosecution. Further, they ‘failed’ to see a connection between the cavalier attitude of the Shell regime to safety and the fatal accident of 2003.
Jake Molloy is particularly incensed by the HSE’s failure to act. Shell, he maintains, is a corporate body and can be expected to behave like a corporate body.
But the HSE is a public body, created to act in the interests of the public, in this case the workers, and to reign in the corporate body. Yet they didn’t.
They were supposed to keep people safe. They didn’t.
Campbell feels that the HSE behaves “like some member of an elite colonial club, with its operators as honourable members.
“It would appear to take the assurances given to it by directors of the dutyholders at face value, and at the same time underestimate the genuine concerns raised by the workforce.”
Bluntly, those who work in the UK sector of the North Sea have no one to look out for them.
Campbell didn’t leave it there. Having exhausted all the internal mechanisms to have the PSMR recognised and its recommendations acted upon, he used his position as a shareholder to exercise some leverage and wrote to Malcolm Brinded, in the letter quoted throughout this article.
He then went public, in a final bid to force Shell’s hand and bring some measure of accountability and safety to operations in the North Sea. He is planning to write a book.
Jake Molloy says the managers allegedly responsible for the safety violations should be held to account, and “put behind bars”.
He adds, however, that Shell is not the only villain of the piece, just the “only one to have been caught”.
There are other operators out there, similarly “sweating” platforms, putting men’s lives at risk from the safety of their glass-walled offices in Aberdeen and London.
Campbell believes a major overhaul is required.
“They really have to shut all the platforms down for a year and replace all the hydrocarbon pipework and vessels, which have corroded, but nobody is going to do that unless they are forced.”
Not only that, but workers need to have more control.
They do in the Norwegian sector, where over 80 per cent are unionised (compared to only a third in the UK) and union safety delegates have the power, if they think a platform is dangerous, to shut it down. Union safety delegates are not even officially recognised in the UK.
Furthermore, the law is enforced much more quickly and effectively. Statoil, Norway’s state-owned oil company, was fined £7million for failing to control a gas leak, even though it led to no deaths.
By contrast, Shell was fined only £900,000 last April for their part in the deaths of Keith Moncrieff and Sean McCue. This fine, by the way, is the largest ever meted out in the UK.
Since Piper Alpha, 70 people have been killed in the UK sector; 26 have been killed in the Norwegian sector, despite their having many more offshore workers.
Meanwhile, out on the North Sea, the deterioration continues. Brent Bravo clocked up two gas leaks in three weeks recently, and in early June, a water pipeline passing through the utility leg sprung a leak, forcing work to be suspended.
The platforms, says Jake Molloy, are being “trashed” by the likes of Shell, who seek to “suck out as much cash from the North Sea as they can” with minimal investment.
This doesn’t just have implications for the safety of workers, it has implications for our energy security.
Once the easily accessible oil runs dry, who will be here to drill for the less easily accessible stuff?
Not Shell, nor Exxon. If they won’t invest now, they are unlikely to invest in the future. So who will?
“There is so much oil out there, just as there was so much coal left in the pits when Thatcher closed them down.
“But trashing the hardware could bring the industry to a premature end, making us very dependent on imported oil and gas,” says Jake.
“Some may welcome this, but we’ll feel it next winter, when our bills hit the roof – or the lights go out.”
(Offshore Industry Liaison Committee)
With grateful thanks to Christopher Hopson, of Upstream magazine, who provided much of the research for this article. Read more at www.upstreamonline.com