Thirty-three years ago last week was the world’s worst offshore oil disaster. The Piper Alpha platform in the North Sea exploded, killing 167 men, while only 61 escaped. While petroleum industry safety has improved enormously since, complacency is never an option as new challenges emerge.
The Piper Alpha catastrophe was, as with almost all such events, the result of a combination of wrong policies, bad decisions, bad luck and missed opportunities that would have prevented it. The platform had been converted about a decade earlier from oil to gas production, with design compromises that ended up with the gas compressor next to the control room. A pump was under repair and the next shift was not informed.
When a second pump failed, shortly before 10pm, the first pump was turned on but it leaked and exploded, destroying the control room. The automatic firefighting system had been switched to manual. Without controls, the crew could not turn on the water pumps, organise an emergency response or evacuation, or inform neighbouring installations of what was happening.
These platforms continued to pump gas to Piper Alpha, even though they could see the fire, because they thought they lacked the authority to order a shutdown. Company culture demanded that production continue unless it was absolutely necessary to stop. Two further enormous explosions from the feeder gas lines destroyed much of Piper Alpha and forced a firefighting and rescue vessel to pull away.
Shortly before midnight, the structure collapsed, carrying the fireproofed accommodation block, where about a hundred crew were sheltering, to the seabed. Their bodies were found later that year. Most of the accident’s 61 survivors escaped by jumping into the water, some falling 53 metres, despite having been told the drop would kill them.
The subsequent Cullen Inquiry was enormously influential – not only in identifying the specific causes of the disaster but in rethinking the whole basis of offshore oil industry safety. A system of rigid, prescriptive and outdated rules was replaced. Operators are now required to present and continually update a “safety case”, demonstrating comprehensively that their system is safe for its intended use and that risks have been reduced as far as practicable.
The industry remains relatively dangerous: in the US, the fatality rate is lower that of the agricultural and logging sectors but similar to that of the transport industry and higher than that of construction. However, the most common cause of petroleum worker deaths these days is not explosions or machinery-related, but road accidents.
Maintaining safety requires ceaseless vigilance. Company mergers and periods of cost-cutting can easily erode successful safety cultures.
After a long period of low oil and gas prices in the 1990s, many plants became rundown. The ignition of a leak at Algeria’s Skikda liquefied natural gas plant in 2004 destroyed it and killed 27 people. After the mergers of BP, Amoco and Arco between 1998 and 2000, the British company inherited the Texas City refinery. Poor maintenance was blamed for an explosion in 2005 that killed 15 workers.
After Piper Alpha, the most serious and famous offshore accident was the Deepwater Horizon blowout during drilling on BP’s Macondo field in the Gulf of Mexico. Of the 126 crew, 11 were killed, and the largest ever offshore oil leak took five months to contain while contaminating a long stretch of coastline. The company eventually estimated its costs for the disaster at $65 billion.
In March 2012, a serious gas leak at Total’s Elgin platform in the North Sea fortunately avoided a disastrous explosion.
Iran’s oil industry has suffered a string of recent accidents, which may be related to mismanagement, inadequate equipment because of sanctions and, in some cases, sabotage.
Most recently, on July 2, Mexico’s Ku-Maloob-Zaap field suffered an undersea pipeline leak, leading to an intense fire burning on the sea surface, although it seems to have been extinguished without serious damage.
Such accidents make headlines even more easily now because of the prevalence of smartphone cameras and social media videos. The oil and gas industry is already unpopular in many countries because of its connection with climate change and other environmental damage.
Operating safely is essential for human life, financial viability and long-term social acceptance. Good practices go along with preventing leaks and conducting proper maintenance, which also reduces greenhouse gas emissions.
Emerging challenges relate to new environments, new technology and the changing industry situation. Deepwater extraction is not exactly a new situation for the industry but events such as the Macondo blowout, at a depth of 1,600 metres, went beyond the limits of standard safety responses.
The Arctic – with its remote locations, ice cover and long nights – is another unforgiving area.
Increasing automation and digitisation improves safety, allows predictive maintenance and gives early warnings of problems. It also means that fewer people are on site and, thus, in danger. But it can also risk misreading warning signs or unusual situations. Exposure to cyber security threats backed, perhaps, by unfriendly states has grown, as the May shutdown of the Colonial Pipeline in the eastern US reminds us.
A transition away from oil and gas could lead to a long period of low hydrocarbon prices and limited maintenance on plants that are approaching their life’s end. Big oil companies such as BP and ExxonMobil are divesting fields to smaller operators. Many of these are excellent and conscientious but some may lack the big companies’ finances, expertise or reputational exposure.
Lessons won at such high cost must not be forgotten. The victims and survivors of Piper Alpha and other accidents suffered to bring us the energy we take for granted. The industry and the governments that regulate it should honour them by continuing a relentless drive for safety.
Robin Mills is chief executive of Qamar Energy and author of The Myth of the Oil Crisis