Calgary Herald

Total gas leak raises questions

Delays in safety checks, maintenanc­e


The U.K. North Sea’s dwindling oil and gas reserves are pushing companies to tap unstable reservoirs at high pressure and extreme heat, while safety checks and maintenanc­e are behind schedule, says a North Sea rig auditor.

French oil major Total is battling to stem a 12-day gas leak at its North Sea Elgin platform after a series of technical failures that industry sources say reflect wider lapses across Britain’s offshore industry.

The auditor, an engineer and a union official said a range of measures designed to prevent a leak must have failed on Elgin, allowing gas to escape to the surface.

Total did not return requests for comment on issues raised by this report.

“There is a worrying backlog of maintenanc­e on safetycrit­ical equipment, including release valves, pipelines and sub-sea fail-safe devices,” said the auditor, an oil industry profession­al with more than a decade’s experience of safety systems and procedures.

“My experience in this region is that if you scratch beneath the surface, things get quite scary quite quickly,” he said.

Some North Sea rigs designed in the 1960s and 1970s are “falling to pieces” after exceeding their production lifespans, while more modern platforms are lagging well behind scheduled maintenanc­e programs, the auditor said.

Another source at a major oil company said safety still ranks high, but low gas prices — at about half their levels before the 2008 financial crisis — forced operators to weigh “loss of life risks against loss of production risks.”

With rising operating costs and lower revenues, companies have put pressure on facilities to produce more fuel to break even, which means reducing the number of safety checks that could interrupt production.

The U.K.’S offshore regulator, the Health and Safety Executive, has previously iden- tified maintenanc­e backlogs in successive asset integrity reviews, noting maintenanc­e on safety-critical equipment was especially poor.

“In some companies, the decline in integrity performanc­e that started following the low oil prices has not been effectivel­y addressed, and there appears to be an acceptance of this, knowing that the assets are likely to be sold,” it said in 2009.

High-pressure, high-temperatur­e (HPHT) reservoirs, like the one feeding the Elgin platform, exacerbate matters because they combine higher costs to drill and maintain with “the inherent risks associated with them,” the auditor said.

“I have seen things on some platforms that HSE would be extremely unhappy about,” he said.

Maintenanc­e on systems critical to safe guarding life in some cases has been pushed back by up to a year, he said.

An engineer who designs rig equipment said the entire industry was “swamped by work” so maintenanc­e backlogs could also be due to limited resources as companies providing piping and valves are working flat out to meet demand.

Industry body Oil & Gas U.K.’S health and safety director, Robert Paterson, said: “All safety-critical systems on every installati­on are subject to regular and rigorous inspection­s. Offshore safety isn’t getting worse, it’s continuall­y getting better.

“Over the last 15 years . . . we’ve seen a 70 per cent reduction in major and significan­t hydrocarbo­n releases (and) a 66 per cent reduction in all types of injury.”

A spokesman for Royal Dutch Shell, which also operates in the UK North Sea, said: “Asset integrity is a high priority for Shell. In 2011, we invested around $600 million in our North Sea assets, including maintenanc­e. We strive to operate all our assets, regardless of age or location, in a way that meets or exceeds both our global internal standards and relevant legal and regulatory requiremen­ts. We are confident that the maintenanc­e plans for our North Sea assets are robust.”

BP, another major North Sea operator, did not comment.

“There is a wide issue with the age of the platforms,” said Oberon Houston, a petroleum engineerin­g manager with experience of working on a number of rigs in the North Sea.

“People tend to think, ‘The platform only has four to five years left in it, so we don’t do anything to it,’ but oil prices rise, or you find more oil, and suddenly you’re going for another 12, 15 years or more.”

Dick West, operations director of North Sea operator Xcite Energy, said aging facilities do, however, need to prove their safety to have their life extended, and the HSE had been demanding more detail in the past 18 months.

The British safety regulator said there were about 70 major or significan­t hydrocarbo­n releases a year in the British part of the North Sea — “significan­t” meaning it could cause multiple fatalities and escalate further. Norway had just eight in 2010.

“It is lack of assessing risk, lack of control of the work, people cutting in the wrong pipework, people doing a shoddy job, making or breaking pipework, corrosion that should have been anticipate­d and monitored,” Steve Walker, head of the offshore safety division at U.K. Health and Safety, said in October.

Total’s Elgin leak occurred above the water line on the rig itself, the auditor noted.

“There are all kinds of safety mechanisms that should kick in and prevent a leak at that height. . . . Quite clearly, these fail-safes did not work,” he said.

Total repeatedly reassured workers that safety systems would prevent a leak up to and including a few hours before the blowout that triggered the arrival of Royal Air Force and Norwegian helicopter evacuation teams, according to Jake Molloy, head of the RMT trade union’s offshore arm.

Workers had raised safety concerns beginning more than a month before the incident, he said.

 ??  ?? Total’s Elgin rig in the North Sea is leaking potentiall­y explosive gas. An industry auditor says the leak, which occurred above the water line on the rig itself, could have been prevented by fail-safe mechanisms.
Total’s Elgin rig in the North Sea is leaking potentiall­y explosive gas. An industry auditor says the leak, which occurred above the water line on the rig itself, could have been prevented by fail-safe mechanisms.

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