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The Times: Oil groups failing key North Sea safety tests

August 14, 2006
By Carl Mortished, International Business Editor 
 
NORTH Sea oil companies are failing to keep up with vital offshore maintenance work, the oil industry’s top health and safety regulator has claimed.

A build-up of tens of thousands of hours of neglected maintenance work on ageing platforms is causing mounting concern at the Health and Safety Executive’s Offshore Division, responsible for ensuring that hundreds of North Sea installations are operated safely. The backlog of essential work is certain to lead to more extended closures of offshore oil and gas platforms. 
 
Ian Whewell, head of the division, said that the amount of work needed was posing a tremendous challenge. “There is always some backlog, but I have seen between 20,000 and 30,000 man-hours of work needed at one installation,” he said. “I think there are installations where the company needs to think seriously whether any solution other than shutting the platform is enough.”

BP’s decision last weekend to shut part of the Prudhoe Bay complex in Alaska has highlighted the problem of rust and corrosion on elderly oil installations. This is a growing problem in the North Sea, where some platforms are more than 30 years old.

The rise in the price of oil may have exacerbated the problem. Mr Whewell said that companies were seeking to extend the life of oilfields once considered uneconomic and scheduled for abandonment: “They can be made safe, but it requires much work.”

The main focus of the HSE’s concern is the effect of rust and corrosion on pipelines, stairways, safety and process equipment. The collapse of a platform is unlikely, Mr Whewell said, because most of the older platforms were capable of lasting beyond their 25-year design life.

However, Shell set aside $1 billion (£530 million) to upgrade its North Sea platforms after an accident at Brent Bravo in 2003. Two men died in a massive gas leak as they inspected a repair to a rusting pipe. The company later decided that a significant investment was necessary.

The platforms are like old cars, Mr Whewell said. “If you don’t carry out maintenance every 12,000 miles, you have a backlog.” The design life is less relevant than “intended life”, which is now being exceeded, he said. The backlog of delayed maintenance built up when the oil price was weak is reaching crisis levels for some companies, which could lead to safety problems.

“There is tremendous pressure to keep oil flowing,” Mr Whewell said. But companies had to reflect whether their maintenance shutdowns are long enough. “Unless they have proper shutdowns, things will go wrong.”

Mr Whewell indicated that companies suffering problems included leading multinationals.

Jake Molloy, head of the OILC offshore oilworkers’ union, is critical of Britain’s self-regulating health and safety regime, under which the HSE cannot conduct spot checks. “In Norway, inspectors can arrive at an airport and demand to go out on the next plane to visit a platform. In the UK, they have to give several weeks’ notice,” he said.

Mr Whewell said that the HSE had to work within its resources. “In the end, the responsibility of managing safety is with the companies,” he said.

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2 Comments on “The Times: Oil groups failing key North Sea safety tests”

  1. #1 Shell insider
    on Aug 14th, 2006 at 13:37

    Shell is the largest operator in the North Sea and a Multi National in the top 50 Companies in the world. To have an Improvement notice served on them by the HSE for the repair of corroded facilities beggars’ belief, especially following the recent fatal accident case prosecution and fatal accident enquiry result.

    What has happened to the Management processes that are in position to take care of such mundane matters?

    Shell consistently shouts from the rooftops that safety is the highest priority at all times. Any critics who raise any doubts are barraged with extreme denial that there are any problems. Mr Bill Campbell has found that out even when acting in his capacity of an employed internal Auditor. (see http://www.shellnews.net for more details) .

    Oil and Gas Platforms have been in the Northern North Sea for more that 30 years and corrosion is an expensive item to keep at bay. Being proactive is the name of the game but then:-

    Shell has been caught using neoprene strips and hose clips for solving corrosion repairs, failing to maintain Emergency Shut Down Valves, as a result two ordinary offshore workers have suffered tragic consequences as a result.

    Meanwhile the HSE has been sitting on its hands in Lord Cullen House not implementing its own guidance documents for the Policing of Offshore Operators Safety Cases and the compliance with. See link to HSE’s procedural guidance documents http://www.hse.gov.uk/enforce/emm.pdf and http://www.hse.gov.uk/enforce/emm.pdf This includes visits to Offshore to ensure that the Office based records are fact and not fiction. Talking to people at the “coalface” is a rich source of the real situation.

  2. #2 Shell Insider
    on Aug 14th, 2006 at 07:01

    Shell is the largest operator in the North Sea and a Multi National in the top 50 Companies in the world. To have an Improvement notice served on them by the HSE for the repair of corroded facilities beggars’ belief, especially following the recent fatal accident case prosecution and fatal accident enquiry result.

    What has happened to the Management processes that are in position to take care of such mundane matters?

    Shell consistently shouts from the rooftops that safety is the highest priority at all times. Any critics who raise doubts are barraged with extreme denial that there are any problems. Mr Bill Campbell has found that out even when acting in his capacity of an employed internal Auditor. (see http://www.shellnews.net for more details) .

    Oil and Gas Platforms have been in the Northern North Sea for more that 35 years and corrosion is an expensive item to keep at bay. Being proactive is the name of the game but then Shell has been caught using neoprene strips and hose clips for solving corrosion problem repairs, even not maintaining Emergency Shut Down Valves, as a result two ordinary Offshore workers died in tragic circumstances .

    Meanwhile the HSE is sitting on its hands in Lord Cullen House not implementing its own guidance documents for the Policing of Offshore Operators Safety Cases and their compliance with. (www.hse.gov.uk/enforce/emm.pdf http://www.hse.gov.uk/pubns/hsc15.pdf)
    This includes visits to Offshore to ensure that the Office based records are fact and not fiction. Talking to people at the “coalface” is a rich source of the real situation.

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