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Gullfaks: New approach to enduring problem

Eyebrows were raised when the PSA wrote directly to executive vice president Øystein Michelsen in Statoil instead of issuing a conventional order. But its purpose was wholly traditional – to demand better safety management by the company.

The immediate reason for the unusual open letter in March 2011 was a serious gas leak on Gullfaks B in the North Sea during December 2010. But the wider backdrop also needs to be understood. Norway’s petroleum sector, including its regulators, was much affected by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon incident in the Gulf of Mexico, which killed 11, injured 17 and caused major pollution.

Just a month later, on 19 May, a serious condition arose with well C-06A on Gullfaks C in the North Sea. Operator Statoil fought for more than two months to restore control.

The PSA’s investigation concluded that planning of drilling and completion work in this well suffered from serious and generalised deficiencies. These related to such key aspects as managing risk and change control, experience transfer and use of expertise, and knowledge of and compliance with governing documents.

Also reflecting poor documentation of decisions, the incident could – under slightly different circumstances – have resulted in a major accident on the NCS.

Both the PSA and others also pointed to parallels between the Gullfaks C event and the dramatic near miss on Snorre A in 2004, when a major accident was narrowly averted.

This background ensured that the case attracted great attention – technical, political and journalistic. It culminated when the PSA presented its conclusions on 19 November. The authority notified a far-reaching order for Statoil related to the Gullfaks C well, which would come into force on 7 December.

So a serious gas leak on the neighbouring B installation on 4 December – just three days before the order became legally binding – created an extraordinary and sensational position.

The PSA launched an immediate investigation of the B incident, which found a number of important similarities between the causes of the two Gullfaks accidents.

By the time its report appeared, the PSA was aware that Statoil had already initiated long-term improvement measures in the wake of the C incident.

So the question was whether it would serve any purpose to notify the company of a new far-reaching order and outline which corrective measures it should adopt.

Or should a new approach be taken by making Statoil itself responsible for defining how it could best correct failures and deficiencies in its own organisation?

The PSA opted for the second course. It wanted to address its questions directly to the executive with day-to-day responsibility for activities on the NCS.

That was Mr Michelsen. Naturally, they were not put to him as a private individual, or to express a lack
of confidence in him or his leadership of Statoil’s development and production Norway (DPN) business area.

The purpose was rather to bring a new kind of attention to bear on the case and to ask for direct answers from the person responsible for Statoil’s Norwegian operation.

In other words, the PSA was seeking to address the company in a way which would compel its executive management to define how it could best overcome the problems.

The letter sent to Mr Michelsen on 21 March, when the PSA had completed its investigation of the Gullfaks B incident, posed the following basic questions.

1. What view does the company take of the deficiencies identified by the PSA’s investigation in the light of current and completed improvement activities in the company?

2. What adjustments to current improvement activities does the company consider necessary?

3. What view does the company take of today’s planning and execution of safety-critical work operations on Gullfaks?

4. To what extent does the company consider that the underlying causes of the incident have been identified and assessed when implementing measures?

5. Which specific follow-up action might the company be planning to take in order to ensure that improvement measures are effective on the individual installations?

Statoil was given just over a month to respond to this letter.

Mr Michelsen’s reply listed the improvement measures which had been initiated in the organisation, and acknowledged the need to adjust these and to take further action.

This reply led to more questions, correspondence and meetings during 2011. The Gullfaks B accident and its follow-up were on the agenda at both Statoil and the PSA for much of the year.

“We accept that Statoil has done much important work and implemented appropriate improvements after the Gullfaks C and B incidents,” says Hanne Etterlid, who coordinates supervision of the company at the PSA.

“How its executive management ensures that these measures are actually effective will occupy a key place in our dialogue with Statoil during 2012.

“It’s very important that relevant and specific improvements are made on each of its installations, so that the lessons of and experience from the Gullfaks incidents benefit all its activities – both immediately and in the long term.”