Up to 25,000 barrels of oil – some 5,000 metric tons – spilled into the North Sea in Norway Wednesday during a mishap while loading crude from the Statfjord Alpha platform in Nordsjøen to an oil tanker, field operator StatoilHydro ASA said in a statement.
The spill occurred during a routine transfer, but during heavy weather. Though the oil company says it is prepared to perform these routine operations in high seas, the mishap apparently reveals that something went wrong in the script.
The cause of the spill appeared to be a defect on a floating oil loading buoy, which is used to transfer crude oil to tank ships, StatoilHydro said.
“This shows how risky the oil business is,” said Bellona’s vice president Marius Holm.
“We have long said that preparations for spills are poor, but both the authorities and StatoilHydro have turned a deaf ear to that.”
Holm added that the Statfjord Alpha platform is one of the more reliable platforms in the StatoilHydro fleet and that such oil transfers take place there as routine. But the spill, he says, indicated something went terribly awry in the well-rehearsed process.
“The critical argument, therefore, is how could this have happened,” said Holm. “The platform has equipment to find leaks – these systems must have failed.”
Well-rehearsed play gone wrong
Holm said that transfers of this nature are routine even in poor weather.
“It is completely normal during such weather, he said. “But if there is a risk for possible leaks, the question is whether it is possible to make these transfers if the safety systems are not operating?”
Part of the fault, said Holm, lies with the fact that there simply is no technology on earth that can deal in poor weather with a 5,000 ton spill.
“So the critical question is whether they should have been doing this transfer in this weather in the first place,” he said. The event as a whole, he said, is an argument against off shore drilling as a whole.
“This should be a wake-up call for StatoilHydro and the Norwegian Authorities. There is a huge environmental risk associated with oil drilling and it is therefore Bellona’s position to oppose oil drilling,” said Holm.
Oil insiders say spill could have been avoided
Wednesday’s incident characterizes the second largest oil spill in oil rich Norway’s history. That spill in 1977, lost some 12,000 cubic metres, or 78,000 barrels, during a platform blow-out.
This one, according to Norwegian oil oversight officials could have been avoided. One official who spoke with Bellona Web on the condition of anonymity, and who has close knowledge of how such oil transfers are to take place in especially heavy weather, said something had gong drastically wrong.
According to the official, platform operators are supposed to constantly monitor the flow of oil from the platform to the tanker, and also to be in constant radio contact with the ship’s crew to measure any spillage. In this case, he said, there had been a drastic alteration to the proscribed programme.
Yet another highly placed Norwegian oil official told Bellona Web that there are no official protocols for dealing with such transfers during heavy weather.
Guro Hauge, an oil industry expert with Bellona said, that being the case, strict guidelines need to be drawn up and followed.
Officials relying on the ‘weather gods’
The government’s Coastal Administration said Wednesday on NRK Television that special ships were on the scene, some 200 kilometres from land, to collect as much crude as possible, and that based on expected currents and winds there was little risk of oil reaching the coast.
Bellona’s Holm confirmed that this was the case, and the hope was that prevailing weather patterns and currents would take the oil away from the coast and north into open waters.
“We are relying on the weather gods in this case – nothing is certain and experts say that the risk of the oil coming toward the coast is still there,” said Holm.
The Norwegian Petroleum Safety Authority separately announced that it had mobilized its preparedness team, NRK Television reported.
StatoilHydro and authorities play down dangers
StatoilHydro spokesman Vegar Stokset told Norwegian state radio network, NRK, that Wednesday’s was a serious spill” but “posed no immediate threat to the coastline because the field is far from land, off the western Norway city of Bergen.”
“It is a significant amount and we are taking it seriously,” said Stokset, adding that production from the field was not affected because tanker loading is a separate operation.
He said planes and helicopters were flying over the area to assess the size of the spill, and guide efforts to collect crude floating on the water.
“The spill is moving north. There is strong wind blowing in a northern direction with wave heights of up to seven meters,” Stokset said on NRK. “It’s very far from land.”
Tor Christian Sletner, head of emergency preparedness for the Coastal Administration, said four oil spill systems were being towed by six to eight ships, and were collecting spilled crude.