Calls are going out for a new investigation into Norway’s worst offshore rig accident ever, and they’re getting support from a former prime minister and a trade union leader. The capsizing of the Alexander Kielland rig in 1980 killed 123 workers on board, and calls for a new probe come just as Norway’s petroleum industry authority has admitted to deficiencies in its own supervision of current offshore installations.
The Norwegian state auditor general (Riksrevisjonen) has criticized the Petroleum Safety Authority Norway (Petroleum-tilsynet, Ptil), claiming it hasn’t uncovered serious safety challenges and sufficiently reacted when needed. That led to a grilling of the authority’s director Anne Myhrvold last week by the disciplinary committee of the Norwegian Parliament.
“It’s tough to read that the Auditor General, in the cases it has lookd at, feels our supervisory practice has a limited impact on safety work by the companies,” Myhrvold admitted in a statement published on the authority’s own website (external link). She told Members of Parliament that she and her colleagues take the auditor general’s findings “very seriously,” and that “we’re well underway in correcting the mistakes they point out.”
Myhrvold said she thinks safety, security and supervision of offshore installations on the Norwegian Continental Shelf already have improved. She told news bureau NTB, however, that “in some cases we’ve had too much faith” that oil companies will address deficiencies and correct mistakes pointed out by the regulators.
Denies authorites are naive
“We haven’t been naive or had blind faith (in the companies and rig operators),” she insisted. “We must control and check on them. In some cases we’ve had to tighten our grip even more, and we’ll be doing that.” Labour Minister Anniken Hauglie of the Conservative Party was also harshly criticized for failing to adequately supervise the petroleum authority, and has promised to do a better job as well.
Ongoing problems with the huge Goliat platform in the Barents Sea, operated by Italian oil company Eni, were used by the auditor general as a prime example of how Ptil didn’t function as it should have. The auditors noted how Eni was granted permission to start using the platform, which has a long history of problems, before it was safe to do so.
The petroleum authority also announced Monday that it was now investigating “incidents” on the Statfjord A and Gyda platforms, involving and oil leak and a personal injury
Nagging questions about Kielland capsize
Norway’s offshore oil industry has long claimed to be among the safest in the world, but the Alexander Kielland capsize nearly 40 years ago ranks as the country’s biggest industrial accident ever and is long from forgotten. The Alexander Kielland, operated by Phillips Petroleum at the time, functioned as an accommodation platform on Norway’s venerable Ekofisk oil field in the North Sea.
On the stormy evening of March 27, 1980, with waves reaching heights of eight meters, one of the platform’s five legs loosened from the structure connecting it to the other legs and the platform itself. The Alexander Kielland sagged and overturned within 20 minutes. A total of 123 on board were killed and 89 were rescued.
A state investigation concluded in 1981 that a poor welding job on one of the so-called “stags” (rods and pipes) that connected the legs set off the accident. A French investigation launched because the platform was constructed at a French yard put most of the blame three years later how the rig had been operated. Phillips and the Norwegian insurance pool covering the rig agreed to a confidential settlement with the yard in 1991. Newspaper Dagsavisen recounted this week that Phillips had demanded NOK 700 million in compensation, but ended up with just NOK 6.5 million.
Survivors and witnesses to the tragedy continued to come forward with their stories, while many of them, their families and the families of those killed have never felt a sense of closure. Norway was a young oil nation at the time and no one ever took responsibility for the capsizing. Dagsavisen reported over the weekend how several members of the “Kielland network,” including a Member of Parliament whose father narrowly survived the harrowing experience, are once again objecting to the controversy and secrecy that surrounded the Alexander Kielland capsize, and demanding a new investigation.
Haunted for life
Oddbjørn Lerbrekk and his daughter Solfrid, now an MP for the Socialist Left party (SV), are among them. Lerbrekk, who survived the disaster, recalled its horrors to Dagsavisen, also noting now life vests and survival suits weren’t available and life boats weren’t launched as they should have. He saw fleeing colleagues cut in half when anchor chains snapped, and ended up in the cold water himself. He was eventually rescued by crew on board a supply boat. To this day he can’t bring himself to swim in the sea.
He was eventually provided with new clothes by Stavanger Drilling, which owned the Alexander Kielland, received his month’s pay in cash plus three months extra. He was questioned by police and the commission investigating the disaster. As in other disasters like the sinking of the ferry Estonia and the fire on board the Scandinavian Star, unanswered questions remained and compensation was scant. Lerbrekk has little faith in the conclusions of the investigation and the settlement.
New support for a probe
Lerbrekk and a network of survivors calling for a new investigation have so far been turned down by top government officials including the prime minister, labour and justice ministers. Dagsavisen reported Tuesday that they’ve now won support, however, from Jørn Eggum, leader of the trade union federation Fellesforbundet that succeeded the labour organization representing many of those on board the platform, Jern og Metall.
“I want to meet the network and am open to a dialogue about a new investigation,” Eggum told Dagsavisen. He has also supported research at the University of Stavanger into the capsizing that contributed to the book in 2016. “Issues have been raised that were under-communicated at the time (of the capsizing and first investigation),” Eggum added.
Former Prime Minister Kåre Willoch, who hails from the same Conservative Party as current Prime Minister Erna Solberg, also believes it’s worth listening to the survivors of the Kielland tragedy and has told newspaper Stavanger Aftenblad that he supports a new investigation.
“I believe that what happened during the accident has been well-covered,” Willoch elaborated to Dagsavisen. “What I wonder about is if there’s been a thorough-enough examination of whether anyone should have discovered that the construction (under the platform) was too weak to be used. That should be looked at again.”
He stressed that there may not be sufficient cause for a full public investigation but rather new examinations of various portions of the previous one. He believes the current government, politicians and the labour movement “should listen to folks who have such strong reasons for being convinced” a new probe is necessary. He can understand that survivors can’t let go of the accident or the nagging questions they have: “It’s a colossal, highly emotional issue.”
Willoch was prime minister when the Alexander Kielland, after lying upside down for three years, was raised and turned upright. Six more bodies were recovered inside the accommodation structure. “We wanted to find more of the dead,” he told Dagsavisen. “There weren’t any more answers to find from the wreckage then.”
The Kielland network has had meetings with leaders of the Parliament’s disciplinary commission, the same one that grilled current petroleum industry regulators last week. “They oriented us about what they’re working on, and what they believe are unanswered questions,” committee leader and MP Dag Terje Andersen of the opposition Labour Party told Dagsavisen. “Now we’ll go through the answers they’ve received from the government before we conclude what we’ll do.”