Statoil narrowly avoided a blowout

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Norway’s state oil company Statoil has long nurtured a reputation of being a high-quality operator with a strong safety record, but now the regulators in Norway have uncovered serious safety flaws. They claim the company only narrowly avoided a full catastrophe last spring.

Statoil has been harshly criticized by state regulators over a lack of safety on its Gullfaks C platform ini the North Sea. PHOTO: Øyvind Hagen/Statoil

The Petroleum Safety Authority of Norway (Petroleumstilsynet, PSA) has hit Statoil with strong criticism over its handling of “a series of incidents” on its Gullfaks C platform in the North Sea, and ordered a string of improvements.

“Only chance averted a sub-surface blowout and/or explosion,” stated the authorities after investigating the incidents that climaxed with the evacuation of the Gullfaks C platform in May.

The regulators said they regarded the problems surrounding Statoil’s well on Gullfaks as “very serious” and involving “the lengthy loss of a barrier.” Gas leaks could have been explosive, and it also was “only chance” that “prevented the incident from developing into a major accident.”

Workers and their unions had been complaining about the safety situation on board the platform for months and the PSA interviewed “people playing key roles in preparing for the well” in what it called an “audit” conducted in October.

The PSA concluded that the planning for the drilling and completion operation on well C-06A “featured serious and general deficiencies.” The deficiences, according to the authorities, concerned “such key factors as risk management and change control, experience transfer and use of expertise, knowledge of and compliance with governing documents, and documentation of decisions.”

While Statoil officials claim they maintained “good control” and a high level of safety on Gullfaks C, the PSA’s report set off immediate condemnation of Statoil from environmental groups like Bellona, which is filing charges against the company for violating several regulations. Bellona also claimed that Statoil withheld information and tried to downplay the dangers on Gullfaks C.

“We see several similarities to (a) blowout on Snorre A in 2004 and the catastrophe with Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico,” said Bellona’s leader Frederic Hauge. He called the PSA’s report “completely shattering” for Statoil’s credibility.

Politicians were also alarmed, with Line Henriette Hjemdal of the Christian Democrats telling newspaper Aftenposten that “chance can no longer be part of safety systems on the oil fields.” Snorre Valen of the Socialist Left claimed the report was “a major wake-up call for everyone who has said that an accident like the one in the Gulf of Mexico couldn’t happen in Norway.”

Both the Conservative Party and the Progress Party called for tougher regulation by the PSA and said the authorities should conduct unannounced inspections. Some politicians said they’d never read such a strong report from a regulatory agency, and expected Statoil to take it with the utmost seriousness.

Statoil officials, who rejected blowout concerns last May, continued to maintain that they have “a high degree of safety at every level” but conceded that they now agreed the situation on Gullfaks C “had possible potential” for a major accident. Statoil spokesman Geir Gjervan claimed Statoil was aware of the dangers, though, “from day one” and maintained dialogue with the Norwegian authorities.

Statoil suspended drilling on Gullfaks C recently, after concluding its own investigation. When asked by Aftenposten what led to the suspension, Gjervan declined to elaborate.

Øystein Michelsen, executive vice president for exploration and production in Norway, said Statoil officials would be “going through the report and will follow up the order issue … and measures identified in our own investigation.”

(For more on the report and order from the PSA, click here . For Statoil’s response, click here – external links.)

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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