Near disaster aboard Norwegian oil rig as anchor swings loose, puncturing ballast tanks

ingressimage_Boligplattformen-Floatel-Superior.jpg Photo: Photo: Statoil

Statoil, the platform’s operator, evacuated 336 people by helicopter from the platform in the Norwegian Sea in rough weather with gale force winds, snow and 10-meter waves, the second time since September that offshore oil workers in Norway faced serious safety problems.

The Norwegian newspaper Teknisk Ukeblad reported that the rig was further known to be defective by the Norwegian Petroleum Safety Authority, but was allowed to operate on the Norwegian shelf anyway.

The Floatel Superior housing platform tilted up to four degrees during the night after the ballast tank was punctured by the anchor. There was no danger of oil or gas leaks due to the incident at the Njord A field, and the floating hotel was stabilized, but Statoil decided to evacuate a significant number of people.

Bellona President Frederic Hauge said the incident was attributable to a culture of neglect and offering exceptions to rigs within the inspection system of the PSA.

Housing platforms, or so-called “floatels”, offer temporary accommodation to offshore workers involved in significant upgrade work and are sailed out to where they are needed on floating legs. Oil and gas production rigs, by contrast, have sufficient beds only for those tasked with operating them on a daily basis.

Second stability incident in a year

The incident aboard Floatel Superior highlighted the dangers of offshore oil and gas operations in rough conditions. The PSA said in a statement it would now investigate the “serious stability incident.” It is already investigating a September incident when a drilling rig operated by Saipem SpA tilted sharply in the Barents Sea after a ballast tank was filled unintentionally.

In 1980, 123 people died when the Alexander Kielland platform in the North Sea tilted before turning upside-down and sinking.

Offshore union chief says accident potential ‘huge’

“The potential for a huge accident is big,” said Roy Erling Furre of the Norwegian offshore union SAFE. “Stability issues on a platform are quite serious.”

“When stabilization problems occur the alarm should have rung immediately,”  Furre added, sayig he thinks Statoil waited too long to evacuate the more than 336 people on board.

The Joint Rescue Coordination Centre Southern Norway told newsires that three helicopters were lifted 15 people off the floating hotel at a time, taking them to the nearby Njord A drilling rig.

“This was a serious situation, and it was handled accordingly,” Statoil representative for continental shelf issues Ole Anders Skauby said in reports, adding that Statoil was satisfied with the successful evacuation but said even rougher weather would have made it more difficult.

“With higher waves and more movement in the platform, we would have had problems evacuating by helicopter,” he said. “In that case, we would have had to consider other ways of evacuating,” such as lifeboats.

Six helicopters were mobilized, and while three of them were evacuating oil workers to Njord A, the others took the workers from Njord A to Kristiansund on Norway’s west coast, said a PSA spokesman, according to reports.  Thirty-eight out of the total crew of 374 will remain on board the platform to maintain a minimum of security, said the PSA.

Particulars of the accident

Norway’s Teknisk Ukeblad reported that Swedish Floatel International, the owner of the ailing platform, said that it remains unclear as to why the anchor came loose, and that determining the cause will be central to the investigation of the incident.

It remains unknown whether the accident with the anchor was caused by technical failure or human error.

Disturbing revelations on rigs condition

More disturbing still, reported Teknisk Ukeblad, was that the Norwegian Maritime Authority revealed that 19 serious deficiencies aboard the Floatel Superior platform were allowed to slide when the platform was approved for drilling Norway’s continental shelf.  

Bellona President Frederic Hauge called this a “disturbing revelation.”

While Floatel Superior was undergoing the approval process for use on the Norwegian Continental Shelf, the Norwegian Maritime Authority sent an email to Norway’s Petroleum Safety Authority listing a total of 19 defects including poor stability with the platform’s ballast tank system, as well as shortcomings with the platforms anchoring system, Teknisk Ukeblad reported.   

“The fact the PSA for the second time in a short period of time ignored warnings from the Norwegian Maritime Authority shows a lack of necessary judgment,” said Hauge.

Hauge expressed concerned that objections to assure drilling safety raised by the Norwegian Maritime Authority are being systematically ignored by the PSA in was appears to be a widening pattern of brush-offs and exceptions issued by the government oil safety agency.

“Two incidents we had in the autumn clearly show that the Petroleum Authority lacks the necessary judgment relative to ballast systems and floating structures,” said Hauge. “The events also highlight a culture of turning a blind eye [to problem], which is increasingly permeating the PSA – and uncultured politicians must now take responsibility and hop to it as quickly as possible,” he said.

Will a real investigator please stand up?

Against this background, Hauge questioned whether the PSA had the competence to investigate the Floatel Superior incident to any degree of satisfaction.

“Bellona now believes that it is time for investigators to investigate,” said Hauge. “The Petroleum Authority is simply not functioning well enough.”

Statoil culpability in the safety process?

Hauge also criticized Norwegian state oil company Statoil, the Floatel Superior’s operator, of skirting safety issues as well – something Statoil strenuously denied. 

“Statoil has shown its has insufficient control vis-à-vis this incident,” Hauge said. “For example, it is reprehensible that they did not rouse works immediately after the anchor punched holes in the ballast tanks.”

Hauge also believes Statoil knowingly cultivates the culture of neglectful exemptions that characterizes supervisory procedures related to offshore safety.

“We see time and again that the group’s management prioritizes economic considerations over safety,” said Hauge.  “It is therefore not surprising that they are exploiting the situation at the PSA for all it’s worth. The authorities are playing fast and loose with the exemptions it hands out is therefore an additional concern for health and safety on the continental shelf,” said Hauge. 

Statoil’s Skauby told Bellona in a telephone interview Thursday that his company “conducts thorough inspections beyond those of the PSA before taking on such rigs” as the Floatel Superior.

“Our attitude is that such rigs comply not only with Statoil internal regulations but those of the Norwegian authorities as well,” he said.

The rig’s history

According to Skauby, the Floatel Superior was built in Singapore in early autumn of 2010 and worked off the coast of Australian for three months.

It was then supposed to be transferred to Norway’s Talisman Energy but was never put to use by the company “for reasons we do not know,” Skauby told Bellona. The rig received approval from the PSA in December 2010 to work Norway’s continental shelf.

Skauby emphasized that Statoil procedure dictates that the company carry out further inspections on such rigs that go beyond those administered by the PSA, including extensive onboard inspections as well as inspections of the rigs documentation.

The Njord A field has been closed for an upgrade and isn’t producing or processing oil or gas, the Wall Street Journal reported. The field produced about 44,490 barrels of oil equivalent per day in August. Statoil didn’t say when the field was supposed to restart production or whether the startup could be delayed as a result of Wednesday’s incident, the paper said.

For more information and further comments, contact:

Karl Kristensen, Advisor: mobile +47 93 28 07 74, karl@bellona.no

Magnus Borgen, Communication Manager: mobile +47 97 72 84 76, magnus@bellona.no

Charles Digges