Helicopters returning to base or ditching in the sea – no wonder there are concerns that corners might be cut in the dash to reap profit from the North Sea...
Rescue workers taking part in a safety exercise in the North Sea.
Two separate incidents on 12 December brought home the pressures and dangers bearing upon those engaged in the energy industry in the North Sea. Emergencies affecting two helicopters tasked with transporting workers caused them to return to shore.
In the first, a helicopter carrying 18 workers had to be escorted by emergency services to Aberdeen after leaving the Borgholm Dolphin platform. In the second incident, a helicopter with 15 workers on board had to return to base while en route to the Elgin field. A persistently bad safety record lies behind the fears that are being created by such incidents.
It was the same type of aircraft – the Super Puma – that crashed in the North Sea in 2009 with the loss of all 16 on board. Another ditched in May this year 30 miles off the Aberdeen coast, with emergency services rescuing all 14 passengers and crew.
In a similar ditching in the sea off Shetland in October, 19 were rescued. With continual groundings of this Super Puma fleet (manufactured by French company Eurocopter) working lives here can only get more arduous over a winter of storms and high seas.
RMT Offshore organiser Jake Malloy announced an agreement that these helicopters should remain grounded until their problems were finally fixed. The industrial officer of Unite, John Taylor, had raised “serious concerns about whether these aircraft are fit for purpose” and praised the pilots and emergency workers for their handling of the incidents.
This year will see the 25th anniversary of the massive gas leak and fire on the Piper Alpha platform in July 1988 in which 167 workers died – the world’s worst disaster in the offshore industry. Unions demanded and achieved a transformation in attitudes, but still several smaller, but serious events occurred. Now with the increasing scramble for energy, pressure is mounting and corners are likely to be cut. Increased vigilance is needed to prevent the growth of hazardous conditions.
Many new oil and gas fields are in much deeper waters, further out. For example the Rosebank field, developed by Chevron, is 80 miles to the north west of the Shetland Isles and in waters 3,700 feet deep. These oil fields are believed to contain a fifth of Britain’s remaining reserves, with the Rosebank field having 240 million barrels of recoverable oil.
The current exploration of the Faroe-Shetland Channel takes the industry away from the North Sea and out into the Atlantic. A report in November from Scottish Enterprise identified 86 new oil fields on the British Continental Shelf – 34 under development and another 52 where work will start around 2016. In October, Shell announced its development of the Fram oil and gas field – 135 miles east of Aberdeen – which alone will provide 5 per cent of Britain’s gas requirements at peak production.
But training in the correct skills is not keeping pace – over 120,000 skilled workers need to be recruited over the next decade to cope with these developments. The “hub” for the oil and gas industry could well move out of Britain if the skills are not rebuilt and the necessary infrastructure provided. A shortage of drilling rigs compounds the problem.
Vying for control
Alf Young in The Scotsman pointed out “the future of North Sea wealth could prove to be the defining question in the independence referendum” and indeed Alex Salmond never misses a chance to lay claim to the pot of gold he is sitting on. Yet he links his fate to the European Union, which has been manoeuvring for years to control energy policy throughout Europe.
Who actually controls the industry? In November BP sold £625 million of stakes in five of its oil fields to the Abu Dhabi government-owned Taqa. China’s state oil company, CNOOC, is taking over Canadian firm Nexen, which has major North Sea interests including joint operation of Britain’s largest oil field, the Buzzard field, and employing 1200 in Britain. The Beijing based Sinopec is buying a 49 per cent stake in Canadian company Talisman’s North Sea operations.
The list of such deals goes on and on. It’s time Britain took control of its own energy resources. ■