Ageing North Sea oil rigs raise concerns over safety

Dec 30, 2003 01:00 AM

Three decades ago, when the offshore oil fields that make Britain a net exporter of energy were being developed, most experts thought the fields would be running dry sometime around now. The industry planned accordingly, building platforms and rigs meant to last 25 to 30 years in the gale-force winds and towering waves of the North Sea. Since then, new technology, innovative methods and a bit of luck have extended many of the fields' productive lives by years or decades.
"Instead of the North Sea being on its deathbed, it is at a healthy middle age," said Tom Botts, CEO for European exploration and production at Shell.

As is often true with mature fields, though, the big companies that developed them have started to move on. To maximise profits and free capital for fresh development elsewhere, they are cutting back on workers and investment in the North Sea, and selling less productive properties to smaller companies.
To keep the oil pumping, the rigs, pipelines and other equipment must be kept in service much longer than originally planned, and that is raising concerns about maintenance and safety on the oldest of the North Sea rigs. These concerns came to a head in September when two Shell workers were killed on a platform in the Brent field.

An official with an offshore oil workers' union, Jake Molloy, said the two workers were repairing a temporarily patched pipe inside one leg of the platform when a series of valves failed, filling the area with toxic gas. The number of workers on Britain's offshore platforms and rigs has fallen 35 %, to 18,900 in February from 29,500 in 1992, according to department of trade and industry.
Speaking about the North Sea generally, Botts of Shell said, "The challenge has been to be more cost-effective, but it can't translate into poor safety."

Since the September accident, the company has said it will share the lessons it learned with its entire operation. People who heard the briefings said Shell told its 2,500 North Sea workers that the kind oftemporary patch job that had been done on the pipe was inadequate.
The second- and third-tier companies that are moving into the North Sea are willing to drill for quantities of oil that are too small to matter to a major oil company like Shell, and use new methods to eke out a bit more oil from fading wells.

But industry experts say that they may be deterred from investing in the North Sea if more serious accidents occur.
"The philosophy of the majors in recent years has been to run the rigs for cash, and repair things as they've failed, rather than perform routine maintenance," said David Hobbs of Cambridge Energy Research Associates.

Source: The Times of India
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