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Shell’s Prelude gas ship hit by safety, crewing and industrial problems


Shell’s Prelude gas ship hit by safety, crewing and industrial problems

By Peter Milne:

Shell is running its $23 billion Prelude floating LNG plant with critical positions filled by crew who are not fully qualified, and more than 200 safety alarms out of action, ahead of industrial action due to start on Friday.

Gas exports recommenced from the world’s largest floating vessel just two months ago after it was shut down for four months following a complete power failure in December that the offshore safety regulator said could have led to a “catastrophic failure”.

Now, more than 200 smoke and fire alarms are out of action where the crew live at the rear of the vessel, and in the machinery spaces below.

The Offshore Alliance, the union that covers many of the 200-plus Prelude crew, said in a letter to the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority that Shell became aware of the issue on Tuesday while loading an LNG carrier, which is a time of heightened safety risk on Australia’s most complex and unreliable offshore facility.

“Shell continued to operate and failed to treat the failure of their fire-suppression systems as a pressing emergency to be rectified,” the union said.

“The actions of Shell are putting the health, safety, and lives of all crew members at risk.”

A Shell spokeswoman said the alarm issue did not impact the ability to safely operate the Prelude and there were no impacts on production.

Shell documents seen by this masthead confirm the number and location of alarms out of action. The company classified the problem as causing a medium risk of a fire “leading to personnel injury or multiple fatalities” if it could not be contained.

While the alarms are not working, crew have been instructed to regularly inspect areas and tell operators in the control room to initiate responses, such as sprinklers, that would normally be automatic.

On the Prelude, off Western Australia, workers live adjacent to the equipment that cools gas to a liquid for export, unlike onshore LNG plants that are designed to keep as many workers as possible a safe distance from the gas.

The Prelude also has a shortage of control-room operators with sufficient training and qualifications, in part due to COVID-19. A number of positions have been filled by crew with lesser skills under deviations from Shell’s normal safety requirement approved by Prelude’s management.

The Offshore Alliance, a joint venture of the Australian Workers Union and the maritime division of the CFMMEU, told the regulator that while the LNG carrier was loaded on Tuesday, one operator had no relevant experience.

The Shell spokeswoman said all deviations from usual requirements for personnel were in accordance with standard procedures.

A spokesman for the regulator said it was investigating the status of the Prelude’s fire-detection equipment after notification from Shell, and claims that Shell was operating at reduced staffing levels. The spokesman would not provide further details until the investigation was complete.

The Offshore Alliance, which has secured wins on numerous facilities off the West Australian coast in recent years, will commence protected industrial action on the Prelude on Friday.

For 12 days, union members will ban 19 activities on a list provided to Shell, including the unloading of cargoes, that can be worth several hundred million dollars, for three days a week.

Any interruption to production from the Prelude will further tighten global gas supply that lost 20 per cent of US export capacity on Thursday after a fire at the Freeport LNG plant in Texas that will shut the plant for at least three weeks.


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