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A widely predicated calamity on the High Seas

By John Donovan
29 November 2007

I cannot recall any previous occasion when so many people have warned of the likelihood of a disaster on the High Seas likely to cost many lives. Warnings of a North Sea calamity have come from people such as leaders of offshore worker unions and the Aberdeen South Member of the UK Parliament, Anne Bett MP, who raised the subject with Prime Minister Gordon Brown on Wednesday 28 November 2007 on a live TV broadcast of PM questions.

However, the person who has rung the warning bells loudest and longest is Mr Bill Campbell, the former Group Auditor of Shell International who carried out a revealing safety audit on a Shell North Sea Platform before his early retirement in dubious circumstances. Since then, Shell’s attempts to intimidate, discredit and silence him have been unsuccessful.

A sense of urgency has been injected by fires on two North Sea platforms in the last few days, the first on Thistle Alpha and the second on a Shell rig, North Cormorant. Fortunately both were dealt with quickly, but for obvious reasons, any fire on a production platform is an extremely serious and potentially catastrophic event.

Bill has also been galvanised by the complacent attitude of Shell CEO Jeroen van der Veer reported a few months ago in The Guardian newspaper. Van der Veer, in an apparent reference to Campbell’s campaign, said that he felt hurt by the criticism levelled at Shell on the subject. Yet it is clear from comments made by the HSE and statistics published on the HSE website, that Shell’s safety record in terms of fatal accidents and North Sea incidents is getting worse, not better.

Having already extracted the most easily accessible oil and gas deposits from the North Sea, Royal Dutch Shell engaged in a ruthless and astonishing “Touch F*** All” safety culture exposed by the safety audit led by Bill Campbell, which also found fudged repairs and falsified safety records.

The “Touch F*** All” culture was designed to minimise costs and maintain production even at the risk of losing offshore worker lives, apparently considered expendable. As a consequence, two Shell North Sea workers on the Brent Bravo platform lost their lives in a preventable accident. Shell was fined a record breaking £900,000 (over $1.8 million) for admitted health and safety breaches.

Instead of getting rid of the platform management responsible for the unlawful and immoral “Touch F*** All” culture, the then Managing Director of Shell EP UK, Malcolm Brinded, backed the relevant managers and transferred Bill Campbell away from his oversight function. As a reward for turning a blind eye to this and other serious misdeeds, Brinded was promoted. He is now Chief Executive of Shell Exploration & Production.

Convinced that Shell management is still putting profits before safety, Bill has mounted a powerful campaign reported in UK national newspapers. I have been pleased to be part of his campaign which has included writing to over 600 MP’s. In this connection, I was in correspondence on Wednesday 28 November with Anne Bett MP. Indeed I received an email from her immediately following her televised conversation with the Prime Minister on the subject.

I am also aware of certain developments which have not yet been reported. I will not go into detail, but suffice it to say that a number of influential MP’s have taken up allegations made by Bill against Shell and the UK Health & Safety Executive. As a consequence, the Department of Works & Pensions, the UK government body with responsibility for the HSE, have been in correspondence with Bill on behalf of the appropriate Minister and the Department has been making enquires for several weeks.

In a separate development, I have been invited to attend an event in the Grand Committee Room of the Houses of Parliament next Tuesday, 4 December. The invitation from the One World Trust – an independent organisation affiliated with the UK Legislature and the UN, flows from my own campaigning activities against Shell. I hope to have the opportunity to discuss matters with a Government Minister speaking at the event, Lord Malloch-Brown.

Our campaigning for Shell management to tighten up employee safety and abide by its own ethical code – the Statement of General Business Principles – attracts comments from Shell insiders and industry experts. Published below is a timely comment received today.


Not sure how these assurances given by Geoffrey Podger and Judith Hakitt will be transposed into action.  After all there is so much evidence in the public domain for all to see that should have been dealt with correctly at the time.  Bill Campbell has provided irrefutable proof time and time again meeting stone wall after stone wall and yet the KP3 report issued last week would appear to prove beyond all doubt his findings were and sadly continue to be true, in fact they are even worse far worse.

The Thistle fire should never have got beyond the first puff of smoke but it did and elevated to a full scale emergency putting 159 workers at risk. The KP3 report indicated that 50% of the deluge systems did not function on test, if this was the case why did the HSE not issue improvement notices and or shut that Platform down at the time of the inspection?

All Oil Companies cherish their public image and this can be seen every day, just look at the carefully prepared company vehicles delivering fuel to filling stations on our roads, gleaming, proudly displaying the respective logos.  Move now to an area where the Public cannot rest their gaze, offshore.  Look no further that the pictures on the HSE web site KP3 in which the photographs illustrate the advanced stages of neglect, access grating rusted so badly it is cordoned off with notices “danger keep off”, cable support trays corroded so badly they are being supported by the cables, basic fabric upkeep next to being none existent.  Utilities like power generation in such a state of neglect that the manufacturers could possibly publish photographs boasting “even in this condition our equipment still performs!” The question that lurks in the background is why have things been allowed to become in such an advanced stage of neglect?

Geoffrey Podger hit the nail on the head in one of his answers to the DWP committee yesterday:

“At the present time the truth is that the whole sector is very challenged indeed on safety grounds and this is partly as a result of financial pressure not at least because of the actual pressure to generate large qualities of oil when the price is high makes it more difficult to do so safely.”

What a clear understanding Geoffrey Podger has!  Is this an illusion or has he accepted that profit becomes before safety, if so, there is no surprise at the lack of prosecutions and the inadequacy of the HSE organisation. Possibly he is restricted by the legislation currently available for him and his organisation, but why?

Off the fence all of you Oil Company CEO’s and stop this advancing attitude of complacency and disregard for your employees and contracted staff who have and continue to man your operations and, in the process generating large quantities of revenue for your Companies and lucrative bonus payments for yourselves and Senior Management. and its sister non-profit websites,,,,,, and are owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia feature.

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