Questions raised over Statoil’s risk

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Norwegian state-owned oil company Statoil underestimated the risk of operating in Algeria, claims a former Statoil board member. His claim, made a week after terrorists attacked an Algerian gas plant partly operated by Statoil, raises questions over the company’s risk disclosure, while other concerns rose over reports that some of the terrorists involved in the desert attack have been in Norway and may still have cells in the country.

The sprawling In Amenas gas plant in southeastern Algeria was recovering this week from a terrorist attack that led to a hostage crisis. Question are now being raised over security assessments at the plant. PHOTO: Statoil/Kjetil Alsvik

The sprawling In Amenas gas plant in southeastern Algeria was recovering this week from a terrorist attack that led to a hostage crisis. Questions are now being raised over security assessments at the plant. PHOTO: Statoil/Kjetil Alsvik

Five Norwegians remained missing in the aftermath of last week’s terrorist attack and hostage crisis at the In Amenas gas plant in the Sahara Desert. Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg addressed the Norwegian Parliament about the attack on Wednesday and confirmed that victim identification was underway. At least 38 hostages were killed during the crisis, with the Norwegians now feared to be among them.

“Statoil has underestimated the risk in Algeria,” Stein Bredal, former board member of Statoil, told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) on Wednesday. Bredal was for many years an employee representative on the board of Statoil, including in 2003 when Statoil decided to enter Algeria.

A few years later, board member Bredal received disturbing messages about safety in the country. “I heard there were two existing reports about Algeria,” he told DN. “One report about less dangerous topics like economic matters, while another addressed risk evaluation and Statoil’s partner (and security adviser) in Algeria, Stirling Group.”

Bredal attempted to get hold of the report to present it to the audit committee of the board, but failed. At first, he was told it had been shredded. The report later emerged, but then Bredal was no longer a member of the board.

Stirling in the spotlight
Bredal says leading security staff in Statoil had questioned the risk of operating in the country and the assessments made by Stirling, the leader of which, DN reported, was believed to be disrespectful towards some Statoil executives. “The administration refused to provide classified notes about the security situation in Algeria, neither for the board nor the audit committee,” Bredal told DN.

Stirling Group, staffed largely by former elite soldiers and special forces, has been Statoil’s security adviser in Algeria while the Algerian military is responsible for armed security operations. Stirling had cooperated with Statoil’s partner BP for many years and started working for Statoil as well, but its leaders weren’t always popular with Statoil workers. In one case, Statoil’s personnel department reportedly was upset by Stirling’s alleged ridicule of a senior Statoil manager in an e-mail. Statoil had no immediate comment on the incident this week, so many years after it occurred.

Regarding the allegations that Statoil underestimated the risks in Algeria, Statoil’s chairman claimed a risk-assessment is always an important part of a decision to undertake new investment projects. “We have evaluated the investment project in Algeria, including the risks,” Statoil Chairman Svein Rennemo told DN.

“I think we did a thorough evaluation,” Rennemo said, adding, though, that the company now will review its experiences in Algeria. He repeated that the group’s strategy to operate internationally had not changed.

Statoil’s Chief Executive Helge Lund has earlier rejected calls for Statoil to scale back operations in dangerous, remote locations. Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide has claimed that any reductions would allow the terrorists to succeed in scaring off international businesses.

Terror group operating in Norway
Meanwhile, newspaper Aftenposten reported Wednesday that the terrorist group behind the attack in Algeria has previously operated in Norway and was closely monitored by the Norwegian police intelligence unit PST (Politiets sikkerhetstjeneste). The group of radical Islamists is believed to have spun off from terrorist organization Al-Qaeda.

Several Algerian terrorists may still have one or more cells in Norway, because persons reportedly under police surveillance around 2005 are still active in extremist groups in Norway, reported Aftenposten.

“There are extremist groups in Norway that we are focusing on,” Martin Bernsen, head of information at PST, told Aftenposten. The Norwegian military’s intelligence service, known as E-tjenesten, warned in its 2011 report about terrorist threats from Algeria and other North African countries. They made it clear that they are tracking links to Norway from Al-Qaeda or affiliated groups.

“The contact between Al-Qaeda or affiliated groups and people in Norway is mainly supportive, but has also included in recent years facilitation for planning attacks,” the report read.

Poor protection
Risk assessment and discussions about the necessary level of security are now hot topics in Norway, which can be a target for terrorist groups but which has much different levels of security than, for example, Great Britain, reported newspaper Bergens Tidende (BT),

While armed police protect many international gas plants, Norwegian plants have much poorer protection. Many are surrounded only by a fence, noted BT. The paper has visited a plant outside of Bergen on the west coast and witnessed a “no trespassing” sign and two fences, one and three meters high, around the plant. The plant provides gas for countries such as France, Belgium and Germany.

The gas plant St Fergus in Great Britain, meanwhile, has armed security operations, according to BT. Their fences are also made from solid metal unlike the fences surrounding Norwegian plants which are easy to cut through, the paper says.  “An armed solution such as the one in Great Britain will contribute to reducing the uncertainty at Norwegian plants on land,” says Trond Ingebrigtsen, a security adviser for oil groups and authorities.

Several British plants also have a guaranteed 10 minute-response time if an attack should occur. In Norway, there are no such guarantees and the police would probably need a lot longer to get to a plant if attacked, according to BT.

“The companies don’t see the benefits in protecting their plants … knowing it would take the police an hour or more to get there,” Ingebrigtsen says, adding that no Norwegian plants onshore could withstand an armed attack.

“This time it was Algeria, next time it can be us,” repeated Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg on the floor of Parliament on Wednesday. He claims security is being beefed up in Norway.

Views and News from Norway/Aasa Christine Stoltz

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