Environmental Technology, News, Oil & Gas

Reducing the Risk Worth Taking

Norway's government wants the petroleum sector, the cornerstone of the nation's affluence, to be an international leader in health, safety and environment (HSE). The industry has responded energetically to idealistic HSE goals and sets high standards, especially with regard to...

Balancing HSE excellence with business concerns is a tricky equation, and Professor Terje Aven at Stavanger University College raises a profoundly interesting point that illustrates how far the petroleum industry has evolved. Aven points out that the likelihood of an accident would have been roughly 100 percent when Norway’s North Sea oil adventure was beginning. Then, the risk would be deemed clearly worth taking – because the rewards were so high.

Now the challenges are different and even analytical projections as low as  a probable spill of 1-10 percent by the year 2020 are enough to mobilize concern and heighten preventative planning. After drilling to unprecedented depths and creating technology to cope with a violent sea and terrifying weather, the standards have changed.

Cleaner and Greener

Norway’s petroleum industry can point to sweeping reductions in air emissions, with the Norwegian Oil Industry Association (OLF) reporting a decrease of up to 22 percent recorded from 2002-2003 thanks to investment in new facilities. Their progress is ahead of regulatory requirements, and further reductions are plotted for 2004.

Norwegian oil companies can also boast of a successful transition to environmentally friendly chemicals in production, with the use of the worst hazardous chemicals – coded as red or black chemicals – under 0.5 percent of discharges in 2003.

The industry achieved record lows of oil presence in produced water, and according to the Norwegian Pollution Control Authority (SFT) is on track to achieving the stringent target of zero discharge to sea of harmful emissions from existing facilities by the end of 2005.  New facilities in the north will have no emissions of produced water during normal operation.

Innovations like the C-Tour process, developed by Kværner, can improve purification by up to 90% compared to existing techniques, and Epcon filters are another Norwegian development helping reduce pollution.

A view of Norway’s Haltenpipe Reef Cluster off mid-Norway, taken by a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) at 300 metres depth. Norway’s coral reefs are studied and given a respectful berth by oil companies.© Statoil ASA/M. Hovland

Statoil’s carbon sequestration method, where CO2 is removed from the emerging natural gas and then routed for burial far beneath the seabed, has attracted international attention as a method of avoiding the emission of this greenhouse gas. A new approach is to find economical ways to inject CO2 in order to improve extraction from aging fields.The extent to which Norwegian oil companies take environmental factors into account is vividly illustrated by consideration of a little-known factor – Norway’s coral reefs – found at depths of 50-450 metres. Norsk Hydro’s Ormen Lange gas field project helped map the reefs off mid-Norway and pipeline corridors were routed to avoid any conflict with them. Statoil rerouted their Haltenpipe project in the 1990s out of consideration for coral reefs found 75 kilometres north of Kristiansund.

Low Risk, High Alert

Besides sophisticated techniques to improve its environmental record further, Norway has learned from the inevitable mishaps along the way. Its research centres and firms have a top reputation in reacting to blowouts and spills.

NOSCA – the Norwegian Oil Spill Control Association – is a non-profit cooperative pool of expertise from research groups like DNV (Det Norske Veritas) and SINTEF, as well as government agencies and specialist firms. NOSCA was one of the forces behind establishing Europe’s biannual Interspill conference.

Member companies like NOFI and Noren offer innovative and key spill control machinery, while ABTEK is a remarkably “green” firm, creating oil-absorbent products from 100% natural materials like bark. The company’s “Reba” product, a bark product made from sawmill waste, absorbs oil, repels water, and biodegrades into a rich fertilizer after use.

NOSCA member NOFO (Norwegian Clean Seas Association for Operating Companies), a spill recovery organization of oil companies working the Norwegian shelf, demonstrates a flair for new and sanitary thinking. They found a way to carry out exercises with realistic, simulated spill conditions using … popcorn.

NOFO is also working with the niche firm Miros, which has developed a unique method to use radar waves for the remote detection of oil spills at sea.

If You Think Safety’s Expensive…

…wait until you see what an accident costs, is how Statoil’s VP for Safety, Geir Pettersen, puts it. Pettersen was not talking about the loss of money, but staving off the kind of disaster that used to haunt the industry. Statoil’s “open safety dialogue” won the company’s 2003 chief executive’s HSE prize and is typical of the way Norwegian oil companies now address health and safety issues for staff. Open safety dialogue aims to increase safety communication between managers and subordinates and so reduce risky practices. The future of HSE is increasingly in the attitude held by employees and firms.

A current project involving most of Norway’s key universities and research groups is examining HSE culture in Norway’s oil companies. Researcher Knut Haukelid at the University of Oslo’s Centre for Technology, Innovation and Culture credits mechanization advances and the serious devotion to HSE from drilling companies and Statoil for a massive reduction in accidents in the late 1980s. After this, improved communication and staff involvement are key techniques to spark meaningful interest in safety practices throughout a company.

Another example of prominent corporate concern can be seen in OLF’s announcement in October 2004 that it would be financing a new round of studies into the possible cancer risks that oil workers have been exposed to since the industry began. The University of Bergen will map the level of substances that workers are and have been exposed to and hope to gain important knowledge about which types of offshore work may be at special risk.

Accidents Will Happen

Norway’s new Petroleum Safety Authority (PSA) called it an “extremely grave” situation and to engineers it was a potential nightmare scenario. On the evening of Sunday, November 28, 2004, about the time that the Snorre A oil platform usually carried out its safety drill, a gas leak was detected. Besides the possibility of explosion, the massive floating platform could actually sink if the escaping gas affected the density of the water.

Within hours, 141 workers were evacuated to safety and soon only a crew large enough to deal with the emergency would remain onsite. Heavy liquid was pumped in to lower and halt the gas while robots were deployed to weld the area of the leak.

Before noon on Monday the leak had been stopped. The shutdown and evacuation had gone smoothly and the emergency repair carried out quickly. The situation was over in hours and with no injuries. According to Statoil only dry gas was involved in the leak, meaning the environmental impact was minimal.

The incident was a graphic reminder of the ever-present need for HSE efforts in the industry. The successful operation testifies to the technological advances and experience Norway has gained in its oil adventure, and is ability to keep the price of risk to a minimum.



A view of Norway’s Haltenpipe Reef Cluster off mid-Norway, taken by a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) at 300 metres depth. Norway’s coral reefs are studied and given a respectful berth by oil companies.
© Statoil ASA/M. Hovland