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SHELL’S ALASKAN FOLLY

Do we really need to have another disaster on the scale of Piper Alpha or Alexander Kielland before Shell starts to apply the same standards to their Alaskan operations as are applied to their international operations? Has anyone ever heard of a 47 year old drilling vessel being used in the Arctic in Norway, or even a 30 year old drilling vessel? Or helicopters without de-icing equipment? Shell has lost control of both of their vessels in Alaska, leading to well publicised groundings. Why do we never hear of loss of control incidents and vessels running aground in the Norwegian Arctic?

COMMENT ON SHELL’S ALASKAN FOLLY BY AN EXPERT

Many of your readers will be familiar with the two major North Sea disasters (Piper Alpha and Alexander Kielland) which together resulted in 290 deaths in the 1980s. Those with longer memories will remember the Sea Gem which was lost (with 13 lives) while being moved in December 1965.
 
These vessels were all constructed in accordance with the standards in force at the time. The standards simply could not have anticipated the ferocity of the conditions under which the vessels would be used, or the specifics of the export system to which the Piper Alpha platform was attached.
 
As suggested by Tennille Tracy’s article, standards are created to address the circumstances of accidents/incidents that have already happened. They cannot anticipate new circumstances and are usually the result of compromises which try to balance the economic costs of applying new standards with the perceived benefits. The Cullen Report into the Piper Alpha disaster proposed the use of Safety Cases which would review both operating practices and equipment standards for specific anticipated circumstances. The Safety Case approach has been adopted globally (outside the US) and has undoubtedly contributed to the fall in the number of accidents/incidents in the offshore oil and gas industry.
 
The US should have learned a lesson from BP’s Macondo disaster, but continues to rely on standards which were written long before deep water or arctic drilling was even considered: fortunately most international operators have their own internal standards (which are required to support their Safety Cases) which far exceed the minima of the applicable statutory requirements, if indeed such statutory requirements exist. However, when no internal operator standard is available and costs can be reduced by applying legal minima, the application of standards written for a different world may result in a disaster. Most US standards are based on operations in the Gulf of Mexico or on land, so it is hardly surprising that they are inadequate for the Arctic.
 
Do we really need to have another disaster on the scale of Piper Alpha or Alexander Kielland before Shell starts to apply the same standards to their Alaskan operations as are applied to their international operations? Has anyone ever heard of a 47 year old drilling vessel being used in the Arctic in Norway, or even a 30 year old drilling vessel? Or helicopters without de-icing equipment? Shell has lost control of both of their vessels in Alaska, leading to well publicised groundings. Why do we never hear of loss of control incidents and vessels running aground in the Norwegian Arctic?
 
The Noble Discoverer was designed long before the Sea Gem accident, and the Kulluk long before Piper Alpha: the creation of new standards will not fix the shortcomings inherent in their designs. 

RELATED

http://www.hse.gov.uk/offshore/safetycases.htm

The day the sea caught fire: 20 years after the Piper Alpha explosion .

Sea Gem oil rig collapses

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