UK ill-prepared to deal with major North Sea oil spill say MPs

A committee of MPs has raised ‘serious doubts’ about the UK’s ability to combat oil spills from deep sea rigs following the BP Gulf of Mexico oil disaster last year. The Energy and Climate Change Committee also warned that taxpayers could pay for a major spill in the North Sea.

The committee’s report singled out the ‘harsh conditions’ off the west coast of Shetland, where oil wells are being drilled more than 1,000 metres deep. There were ‘serious doubts’ about the ability of clean-up equipment to function in such an environment, it added. But the committee said a moratorium on deep sea drilling would undermine the UK’s energy security and is unnecessary.

Committee chair Tim Yeo said safety procedures could be ‘tightened up’ but on the whole the industry is safe and the regulatory system oi’robust’, following reforms brought in after the Piper Alpha disaster in 1988. ‘Safety regulations on drilling in the UK are already tougher than they were in the Gulf of Mexico, but oil companies mustn’t use that as an excuse for complacency. Companies cannot continue producing cut and paste oil spill response plans and rig operators must make it easier for staff to raise concerns without fear of intimidation,’ he said.

However, Ben Ayliffe of Greenpeace responded that recent Health and Safety Executive (HSE) figures had shown an increase in both serious injuries and spilt oil in rigs operating off the UK. Major injuries offshore almost doubled from 106.3 per 100,000 in 2008/09 to 188 in 2009/10 while spills of hydrocarbons were up from 61 to 85. ‘They are pressing ahead regardless of the holes in their own regulatory system,’ he said. ‘It is like they have learned nothing from the Deep Water Horizon spill.’

Before he overdoses on complacency, Mr Yeo would do well to refer to a statement made on 24th August last year by Steve Walker, head of the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) offshore division, who bluntly told companies that their health and safety record covering 27,000 workers is “simply not good enough.” He might also recall a £300,000 fine imposed on Schlumberger last December for placing oil rig workers at risk of radiation poisoning. 

Bonnar & Company specialises in hazardous workplace accident claims. Please contact us on 0800 163 978 for free, no obligation expert legal advice on personal injury and industrial disease claims.  

Multi-national engineering firm fined £300,000 over North Sea radiation leak

Schlumberger website

An offshore industry firm has been fined £300,000 at Aberdeen Sheriff Court after workers on a North Sea installation were placed at risk of exposure to radiation.

Schlumberger Oilfield UK admitted breaching health and safety laws on a rig about 210 miles east of Dundee during a drill programme in 2008. Radioactive material was left lying on the drill floor for about four hours, during which time 14 workers were placed at risk of exposure.

Schlumberger had been contracted to undertake work as part of a Maersk drilling programme for the Cawdor well.

Elaine Taylor, head of the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service’s health and safety division, said: “This wholly avoidable incident could have had devastating consequences for the workers involved in the operation.”

Health and Safety Executive (HSE) Insp Gillian Rodaks said:

“Loss of control of any radioactive source is extremely serious, particularly of the size involved in this incident, and it was only by good fortune that the source was recovered in a relatively short period of time. Had someone held it, even just for a few minutes, they would have received a significant radiation dose which may have resulted in injuries to their hands and increased their risk of developing cancer in later life.This case should serve to remind employers and employees, whether in industry, medicine or research, of the need to be constantly vigilant when working with radioactive sources.”

Although Lord Young has gone, his legacy in the shape of his deeply flawed report and recommendations to government on the compensation culture lives on. Our key concern is that with HSE budget cuts here to stay, employers and contractors on North Sea oil and gas installations will be tempted to relax their vigilence and monitoring of health and safety standards. When international firms are found guilty of “wholly avoidable” breaches of health and safety legislation in a particularly hazardous and dangerous working environment we have to question the operating culture of these global organisations and the true extent of their committment to worker safety. 

We can only hope that this fine will encourage Sclumberger and other firms active in the North Sea to improve their standards and ensure that negligence, laziness, ignorance or indifference have no part to play out on the rigs.  

Bonnar & Company Solicitors specialises in hazardous workplace accident claims. Please contact us free of charge on 0800 163 978 if you have been hurt or injured or developed an industrial illness or disease during the course of your employment.

BP now under attack for a ‘culture of complacency’ in oil spill hearing

In stark contrast to the views expressed on Monday by Fred Bartlit, the panel’s chief investigator, new attacks were launched yesterday against BP and the other leading companies implicated in the April oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico.

Bill Reilly, a co-chairman of the presidential commission investigating the accident said:

“They all suffered from a ‘culture of complacency’ about safety. There was not a culture of safety on that rig. BP, Halliburton and Transocean are in need of top-to-bottom reform.”

The remarks from the panel’s chief investigator, Fred Bartlit, on Monday suggesting that greed had not been a factor in the tragedy and that BP, contrary to the assertions of some Democratic members of Congress, had not cut corners to save money, sparked wonderment and anger in some quarters yesterday.

Most controversial were Mr Bartlit’s comments repudiating the allegations of cost-cutting. “To date, we have not seen a single instance where a human being made a conscious decision to favour dollars over safety,” he told the hearing.

“Absolutely absurd,” declared Daniel Becnel, a lawyer suing BP and others over the spill, upon hearing of Mr Bartlit’s assessment. “The reason is it so absurd is because BP is known to paste over safety, especially if it involved money and downtime. They couldn’t afford any more downtime on that rig.”

The presidential commission will present its final report to the White House in January. It is seeking subpoena powers to oblige some key figures to testify, but some Republicans are objecting. The main focus of its probe is the apparently faulty cementing process that was the responsibility primarily of Halliburton and the failure of engineers properly to heed warning signs from a key pressure test that was conducted just prior to the explosion.

The more critical comments from Mr Reilly, a former head of the Environmental Protection Agency, yesterday were echoed by another co-chairman of the panel, Bob Graham, an ex-US Senator from Florida. “There were a series of almost incredible failures in the days and hours leading up to the disaster,” he told the hearing.

From the comments now emerging from the presidential commission, it seems that the panel is divided on the key issue of cost v safety.

Mr Bartlit’s views have been seriously undermined by the contrasting opinons of Mr. Reilly and Mr. Graham, his co-chairmen, which at least auger well for a full and detailed review of each company’s approach to safety management procedures and the actions of all three in the days leading up to the disaster.

BP did not put cost before safety claims oil spill probe chairman

A White House inquiry into the Gulf oil disaster has found “no instance” of BP putting cash before safety.

The report’s findings, delivered yesterday, will be embarrassing for Mr Obama who held BP responsible for the disaster, savaging its then chief executive Tony Hayward. Mr Hayward has since stood down and been replaced by Bob Dudley. At the time critics claimed that Mr Obama was trying to shift the blame from American firms.

The spill which pumped 206 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico over five months was America’s worst environmental disaster. It was triggered by a blowout on the Deepwater Horizon rig on 20th April this year which killed 11 workers.

The oil spill commission’s chief counsel, Fred Bartlit, told the start of a two-day hearing: “We see no instance where a decision-making person or group of people sat there aware of safety risks, aware of costs and opted to give up safety for costs. We do not say everything done was perfectly safe. We’re saying that people have said people traded safety for dollars. We studied the hell out of this. We welcome anybody who gives us something we missed.”

In a seeming vindication of BP, which was widely condemned for the catastrophe, Mr Bartlit said the panel agreed with about 90 per cent of the findings of the company’s internal inquiry. This found flaws with American contractor Halliburton’s cement work and the maintenance performed by rig owner Transocean on critical pieces of equipment.

Transocean has denied the criticisms and said BP’s Macondo well design was a key factor in the accident. Halliburton has also defended its cement work on the well, and blamed other actions for causing the explosion. However, last month Bartlit released a stinging report that said Halliburton used flawed cement in the well.

In our view Mr Bartlit’s admission that “we do not say everything done was perfectly safe” is far from a vindication of BP, Halliburton or Transocean. We are sure that the victims’ families would like to know exactly which aspects of the rig’s operation were unsafe and we feel certain that their legal representatives will be urged to pursue the details of the events leading up to the disaster.  

The families are expecting the commission to answer the fundamental questions surrounding their loved ones’ deaths. It is too easy to arrive at the conclusion no one or no single group was to blame because there is no evidence of deliberate decison making which sacrificed rig safety for cost. The job of the commission is surely to thoroughly examine and investigate the failings of operating systems and safety procedures, or are the families supposed to shrug their shoulders and accept that because nobody meant to harm their loved ones then nobody should be held to account for their deaths.

Just because nobody took premeditated action to cut corners on safety does not mean that Deepwater Horizon was a safe place to be on 20th April this year. The hearing continues.

HSE warns oil companies on North Sea accidents

Just a few short months ago government appointee Lord Young was proclaiming that much of UK health & safety legislation is ‘just plain silly’.

Today, Steve Walker, head of the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) offshore division, has bluntly told companies that their health and safety record covering 27,000 workers is “simply not good enough.”

He said: “The industry has shown it can do better and it must do in future.”

Figures released on Tuesday by the HSE show that while there were no fatalities in the offshore operations it regulates for the third year in a row last year, the number of major injury cases rose from 30 in 2008-09 to 50.

The deaths of 16 in a helicopter crash and a fatality involving a diving support vessel are not covered by the HSE figures but the report says the combined fatal and major injury rate almost doubled to 192 per 100,000 workers compared with 106 in 2008-09.

Mr Walker also expresses concern at the increase from 61 to 85 in the number of incidents involving a major and significant escape of oil and gas that could have led to a major incident.

In the wake of the recent BP Deepwater Horizon tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico, it will be interesting to hear Lord Young’s pronouncemnts on UK health & safety legislation when his review is complete. Let’s hope meantime that the oil and gas industry pays attention to the HSE’s concerns for worker safety on the rigs.

Bonnar & Company specialises in industrial accident and injury claims and has a particular expertise in dealing with claims brought by workers in dangerous occupations. If you or a member of your family needs to discuss a potential claim please call us FREE on 0800 163 978 for a no obligation discussion.