Offshore safety discussion at ONS

Publish date: August 27, 2012

Written by: Kristina Östman

The European Commission’s proposal on a new regulation on offshore safety has been discussed in a number of forums, but on 27 August Bellona brought it into the centre of attention at Europe’s largest petroleum conference. In an event preceding the ONS conference in Stavanger, Bellona held an intense discussion with the Norwegian Oil Industry Association (OLF).

In order to influence the agenda of the whole ONS conference, attended by over 50,000 people, Bellona organised a seminar the day before the official opening. The half-day seminar included a discussion on the much-debated offshore safety regulation proposed by the Commission last year, in addition to sessions on waste from the petroleum industry and a presentation of the new Ocean Forest Project.

Norwegian authorities staying out of the discussions

Eivind Hoff, director at Bellona Europa in Brussels, started the discussion by describing the content of the proposal. Originally this would have been done by the European Commission, who had accepted the invitation, but later pulled out when it became clear that Norwegian authorities refused to take part. This is one of many examples of Norway refusing to constructively influence the ongoing debates on offshore safety.

Eivind Hoff explained the state of play in the European Council and the European Parliament. In addition to intense discussions on the legal form of the proposal, there has been a constructive discussion on various aspects of the content. This shows that even countries which are critical of parts of the proposal are constructively participating in the discussion, contrary to Norway which is consequently claiming that the proposal is non-EEA relevant and avoiding any discussion.

The proposal needs strengthening

Bellona welcomes the proposal, but would like to see it strengthened. It needs to remain a regulation, as a directive would fail to harmonise safety across Europe and sufficiently prevent accidents. Bellona would like to see an EU agency, increased protection of the Arctic, financial guarantees and increased requirements on EU companies operating abroad. These points have all been raised by members of the European Parliament, who are also calling for strengthened legislation.

We cannot wait for another accident before improving the safety

Kjetil Hjertvik, communications manager (health, working environment, safety, security and operations) at OLF, brought the audience back to three of the most serious offshore accidents in recent time, Alexander Kielland in 1980, Piper Alpha in 1988 and Deepwater Horizon in 2010. These have together taken the lives of more than 300 oil workers and all provided an awakening for the respective countries.

Kjetil Hjertvik argued that the accidents have lead to exemplary regulatory frameworks in the UK and in Norway, where two of the world’s best frameworks are found today. He raised the risk that these effective regimes would be torn down as a result from the proposed regulation.

There is in fact nothing in the Commission’s proposal that would reduce the safety in any of the countries affected. As a minimum standard regulation, it only acts to raise the standards across Europe, without preventing any nation to go further.

As clearly explained by Hjertvik, the improved regulatory frameworks in the UK and Norway have arisen after accidents. European countries with immature offshore safety regimes today, mainly around the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, should not need to wait for an accident to improve their regimes. The opportunity that the proposal provides, to use lessons learnt from some countries to improve the standards throughout Europe, need not be missed.

In addition to the risk of ruining existing regimes, Hjertvik raised two more concerns. He argued that the proposal fails to recognise the three part system in Norway, which allows close and open collaboration between industry, unions and authorities, and claimed that the EU does not have competencies in the field of offshore safety.

The effect of the regulation on the three part system, often also raised by Norwegian authorities and unions, goes hand in hand with the risk of ruining existing safety regimes often raised. Both of these have failed to be concretised.

Workers participation is vital

The timeliness of the topic was proven by the lively discussion following the two introductory presentations, moderated by Paal Frisvold, chairman of the board of the Bellona Foundation. The audience emphasised the importance of involving workers in the safety work offshore, which is strongly supported by Bellona. Frederic Hauge, president of the Bellona Foundation, explained how the harassment of whistleblowers for the Gullfaks platform in 2009 show a clear need for improvement even in Norway, which is often presented by Norwegian unions as exemplary on the matter. The protection of whistleblowers is one of the strong elements of the proposed regulation.

“The most dangerous thing we can do is to become complacent. It is vital that we talk to each other and learn from each other”, Frederic Hauge argued.

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