Storms set off fatal North Sea drama

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UPDATED: The violently stormy weather that’s been sweeping over Norway and the North Sea this week also set off intense drama around offshore oil installations. One man was killed when a huge wave crashed into one rig, and then a large unmanned barge broke loose and started drifting right towards oil installations on the huge Valhall oil field, forcing the evacuation of nearly 400 offshore workers.

BP Norge's Valhall oil field complex consists of eight platforms, which were threatened on Thursday by a barge that was cast adrift in a storm. PHOTO: BP Norge

BP Norge’s Valhall oil field complex consists of eight platforms, which were threatened on Thursday by a barge that was cast adrift in a storm. PHOTO: BP Norge

Emergency crews were braced for the worst after strong winds and stormy seas unleashed the heavy Eide Barge 33, setting it adrift during the night. The 100-meter-long barge threatened to crash into platforms on Valhall and the nearby Ekofisk fields operated by BP Norge, ConocoPhillips and Mærsk Drilling. All three companies launched immediate emergency operations to halt production and evacuate personnel.

Not only were the lives of all on board the rigs in danger, but a collision between the barge and any of the platforms also threatened to set off a major oil spill in stormy seas that would be hard to contain. Anti-pollution preparedness crews were on high alert, and all oil production was shut down.

Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported that evacuations began at 2:45am on Thursday, with four helicopters running in shuttle traffic throughout the night until the last of the crews were finally airlifted off the Valhall field center at around noon on Thursday.

The Valhall oil field is located in the southernmost portion of the Norwegian sector of the North Sea, not far from the Ekofisk field. PHOTO: Norsk Olje Museum

The Valhall oil field is located in the southernmost portion of the Norwegian sector of the North Sea, not far from the Ekofisk field. PHOTO: Norsk Olje Museum

Shortly thereafter, a spokesman for BP Norge could report that the barge had drifted clear of the Valhall platforms, which produce around 50,000 barrels of oil a day. The Valhall field, described by BP Norge as “gigantic” and in production since 1982, has 46 active oil wells and its field center complex consists of six separate steel platforms, including accommodation, production and processing rigs bound together by pedestrian bridges.

Officials were deeply worried that the barge would ram the platforms at around 1pm and there was great relief when that didn’t happen. The drifting barge instead passed by the complex but only by about a kilometer. The last of the evacuated crews said they could see the barge approaching.

The danger wasn’t over, though, and ConocoPhillips shut down production on two  oil fields and evacuated 145 workers from the center of its installations at Ekofisk, north of Valhall. Maersk Drilling also evacuated its rigs as the barge kept drifting in very stormy seas.

Kjartan Mehammer of Eide Marine, which owns the barge, said that intense efforts were underway by the crews of three boats attempting to contain the barge in difficult conditions. They literally were trying to fish up the reserve chains that were intact on the barge after the storm tore it from its moorings. They finally succeeded, and gained control over the barge Thursday afternoon.

Monster wave proved fatal
Meanwhile, in another North Sea drama caused by the storm, a giant wave crashed into one of Statoil’s drilling rigs Wednesday evening. Police in Rogaland confirmed that one man on board the rig COSL Innovator was killed and two others were injured when the wave hit.

Henning Bruvik, the captain on board the rig, told NRK on Thursday afternoon that the wave suddenly crashed right into the accommodation quarters on board the rig. “You never know when you can get hit, the seas are so unpredictable,” Bruvik said. He said he and his crew had worked in stormy weather before and hadn’t expected that the sea could turn so violent.

“Suddenly we get an enormously huge wave that hits us right in the accommodation quarters in the front of the rig,” he said, adding that it’s located 20 to 25 meters above the surface of the water. The wave therefore had to have been at least  as high (60-75 feet) and its force broke through six cabin windows, “so a good deal of water, along with rain and wind burst in as well,” Bruvik said.

A 53-year-old man from Oslo working on board the rig was killed. Police have yet to determine an exact cause of death. Two others were injured and flown to hospital in Florø, while the other 103 people on board were evacuated and flown by helicopter to Bergen. The damaged rig was being moved to land for repairs.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund