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No shortcut to the far north

New exploration opportunities are luring the oil companies ever further into the Barents Sea. The PSA is following this move closely to ensure that it is not made at the expense of safety.

This article was originally published in
Safety - Status and Signals 2012-2013

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Faith in the future and expectations for the northern NCS have risen sharply following Statoil’s Skrugard and Havis discoveries in these waters during the past two years.

This increased interest is also reflected in the number of applications for the current 22nd offshore licensing round, with most of the 36 companies concerned seeking Barents Sea blocks.

At the same time, the Norwegian government is studying a possible opening of the Barents Sea South-East region and areas around Jan Mayen in the Arctic Ocean to petroleum operations.

The PSA has submitted comments to the public consultation on this process concerning uncertainty and risk factors associated with acceptable operation in these waters.

Considerable distances, icebergs, icing and cold, Arctic depressions and winter darkness are well-known challenges in the far north. Opening these areas also faces such factors as poor satellite coverage, possible earthquakes off Jan Mayen and uncertain direction-finding owing to variations in the Earth’s magnetic field close to the North Pole.

Øyvind Tuntland, director of professional competence at the PSA, wants to ensure that players wishing to pursue operations in these regions have the right qualifications.

“It’s important that licensees and operators awarded acreage in this licensing round have the necessary expertise and capacity, because they’re the ones responsible for operating acceptably.”

He notes that Norway’s petroleum regulations apply equally to all parts of the NCS, but accepts that the challenges in the far north might call for new solutions.

“The Barents 2020 project carried out in cooperation with the Russian government identified a need to develop separate standards for far northern operations.

“We’re now involved in work on improving existing international norms and developing new ones in a number of disciplines.”

The importance of the companies thinking along regional lines as petroleum activities move steadily northwards is emphasised by Finn Carlsen, one of the PSA’s directors of supervision.

“That applies not only to development projects but also to the exploration phase. Clustering several wells in one area gives better access to emergency response resources, for example.”

The Norwegian regulations specify that it must be possible to start drilling a relief well within 12 days of an accident occuring, which could pose challenges in the far north.

“Because of the big distances, companies must have rigs with satisfactory transit times and equipment available,” Carlsen says. “So it’s a clear advantage if they collaborate to concentrate exploration.”

He also points out that the PSA does not issue consents to drill boreholes which would require more than one relief well in the event of an accident.

“In our view, it’s not realistic to a kill a well which relies on drilling two reliefs. Nor has such a job ever been done offshore. It’s only ever been achieved on land – once.

The PSA commissioned a report on technical challenges in the far north in 2011. Important follow-up includes monitoring how the industry works on the issues, and learning about new technology which might be relevant.

“It’s positive that the industry is taking purposeful action to close the technology gap which has been identified,” says Carlsen. “Research and development budgets are rising.

“The big companies on the NCS know a lot about the far north since they have activities in many parts of the Arctic. So it’s important they teach and transfer experience to others.”