Comment: The oil lobby’s lies – Norway’s oil industry not as safe as it seems


Publish date: August 22, 2010

Written by: Frederic Hauge

Translated by: Charles Digges

STAVANGER, Norway – The oil industry's powerful lobby has led many to believe that a disaster as significant as the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico could not happen in Norway. In fact, Norway has come dangerously close to such a blowout several times, Bellona President Frederic Hauge writes the day before Norway’s annual ONS conference kicks off in Stavanger.

The Norwegian daily Aftenposten reported a week ago Monday that the oil industry has the most powerful lobbyists in Norway. Communications director of the Norwegian Oil Industry Association (OLF) Kristin Bremmer Nebben, was quoted as saying that the lobby are working to avoid the “opponent’s truths.” It is not surprising that the oil industry operates under two different types of truths – their own and the truths of others.

A classic “truth” in the Norwegian oil industry is that oil companies are engaged in safe and secure practices and that these practices are the best in the world for the environment. If this perception of reality prevails, it will only increase the risk of accidents. A complacent oil industry has dulled vision and is less prepared when something happens. At Bellona, we constantly receive information from people within the oil industry who admit that time constraints and profit-hunting practices shove safety concerns to the side – but very few of them, if any, dare to say this openly.

Johan Eck-Olsen, drilling manager at Norway’s state owned Statoil is among those who have said that the BP spill at the Deepwater Horizon rig could have been avoided if the United States had had the same strict rules that Norway does. According to Technology Weekly, the oil industry has begun a campaign to highlight the differences between Norwegian and US oil policies.

But now it is not always the rules that are the problem, but how closely they are followed. It is worth noting that only a week after the Deepwater Horizon lost the security barriers in its well, drilling personnel at Norway’s Gullfaks C platform in the North Sea lost their first major barrier for the second time in six months. For six weeks there was a very real danger of an uncontrolled blowout at Gullfaks C that could have had disastrous consequences.

Inflated self-image

In May, Statoil had to shut down Gullfaks C, after the company lost control over the  pressure in one of the wells for the third time. Gas flowed up to the platform deck, where the explosion risk is enormous. If the gas had been ignited, Norway could have had its own disaster similar to the Piper Alpha North Sea accident in the late 1980’s, in which 160 oil workers were killed in a fire. Naturally, this is not something Statoil speaks loudly about.

Statoil’s attempt to conceal serious incidents and the reasons behind them, specifically at Gullfaks C, naturally begs the question of whether Statoil is reporting adverse events at other installations as well. The OLF’s Knut Thorvaldsen has stated that the Norwegian oil industry’s system of identifying and minimizing risk works “very well.” Such is the oil industry’s self image.

In a report entitled “The Level of Risk in the Norwegian Petroleum Sector,” the Petroleum Authority, or PSA, pointed out 72 events with major accident potential in 2009, and reported a marked increase in the number of gas leaks. This audit points to major challenges related to maintenance and management. “Large accidents are always singing in the background,” the PSA wrote in its report. “The risk is never zero.”

One of Statoil’s most dangerous events on the Norwegian continental shelf occurred on a November night in 2004. A huge blowout caused the sea underneath the Snorre A platform to “boil” sea, and a small spark would have been enough to ignite the entire platform. Those who participated in the rescue effort that night say that with a fire on the giant platform, in all probability, would have sunk and rolled over several wells.

Prolonged blowouts

In an interview with the Norwegian publication “Day and Time,” then platform chief Dag Lygre said this situation could have given rise to huge, long-term blowouts that would have been worse than those we witnessed in the Gulf of Mexico this year. Some assert it could have taken years to stop the leaks. How dangerous the Snorre A disaster was is a little known fact. It is lucky for Statoil that only special interests groups know how close they were to disaster.

This week at the ONS conference in Stavanger will they again be bragging about how wonderful is the state of the Norwegian oil industry.

This feature was published in Aftenposten, Norway’s primary national daily paper. Read more about Bellona’s ONS seminar on August 23 here.