Developing nations embrace stronger oil standards

A new study has named Gulf countries as among the most enthusiastic in embracing moves to become safer for the good of employees and the environment.

Developing countries are embracing an initiative to develop international health and safety standards for the oil and gas industry, with Gulf states among the most enthusiastic supporters.

The finding has emerged from a study commissioned by the Offshore Petroleum Industry Training Organisation (OPITO) to explore how the globalisation of the industry is affecting its safety requirements.

"Contrary to perceived wisdom, emerging markets were cited by a few interviewees as being unexpectedly positive" about enhancements to health, safety and emergency-response training, Rita Marcella and Tracy Pirie of the Aberdeen Business School of Robert Gordon University in Scotland wrote in a recent report.

Their study drew on long interviews with senior managers and safety specialists at 60 oil and gas production and services companies based in almost as many countries.

"There is a reason for that. They have been neglected for whatever, 25 years, 30 years, so they have a hunger to learn, a real genuine interest, and want to get better and know where they want to be," said one anonymous respondent. "So we have been not so much caught out but refreshed by the enthusiasm with which people are embracing it."

Ian Laing, the Dubai-based manager of the Middle East and Africa office of OPITO, agreed. "There is strong support for standards in the Gulf region," he said. "We are seeing a greater number of trained people coming through."

Qatar has been a strong supporter of OPITO's programmes. Its government has mandated that oil producers and contractors operating in the emirate train employees to the standards developed by the not-for-profit industry group, which is owned and funded by its members.

Qatar and the UAE were behind a recent initiative to develop international safe-driving standards for oil workers. The new OPITO driving code was introduced about nine months ago, after an 18-month development period.

Even Libya, a country that until recently had one of the worst international reputations for oilfield safety, now backs OPITO's agenda, urged on by the regional managements of BP and Royal Dutch Shell.

Throughout the North African country's oil sector, there is now "real interest in what we do", said David Doig, the chief executive of OPITO.

"They can see the value in common standards. But it's only in the last year that they've come on board."

Another prospective supporter is Iraq. OPITO is already in talks with the country's oil ministry and representatives of companies working in its oil sector. A formal announcement on safety standards is expected soon.

Although OPITO now is a truly international organisation, with members from more than 30 countries, its roots are in Mr Doig's home country, Scotland. It was founded two decades ago in Aberdeen, at a time when North Sea oil and gas producers were grappling with the implications of the 1988 Piper Alpha disaster, in which an explosion destroyed an offshore gas platform, killing 167 people.

At the organisation's heart is the principle that every oil industry employee has a "fundamental, basic right" to expect that all co-workers and managers - including the people riding in the same helicopter or working on the same rig - have been trained to the same standards, explained Mr Doig, who started his career working on offshore rigs as a pipe-fitter.

That "right", however, is still not universally recognised by the oil industry, the recent study suggests.

Many of the respondents indicated that, for their companies, it was more important to be able to prove that training had been done than that it had been effective.

"It was also interesting that of all the interviewees responding to this particular question, only one cited that their organisation's training development was driven by a moral obligation to keep its employees [and the environment] safe," the researchers wrote.

"This must change if the industry wants to improve its reputation and attract a new generation of talent," Mr Doig commented.

Already under fire from environmental activists and proponents of renewable energy, the petroleum industry has been severely tarnished this year as a result of the April 20 blowout at BP's Macondo exploration well in the Gulf of Mexico. That accident, which killed 11 workers aboard the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform and unleashed a catastrophic oil spill, has once again focused intense international scrutiny on safety standards across the oil industry.

Mr Doig, for one, believes this is warranted: "The industry needs to take a good look at itself."