The oil industry’s lack of understanding and respect for the special conditions on the Arctic NCS is under attack by Johan Petter Barlindhaug. His concern is to see commercial and safety success for petroleum operations in these waters.
Weathering the far north
The north Norwegian businessman and former chair of Alta-based oil company North Energy has spent the past 18 months criss-crossing Norway to urge greater regard for far northern weather.
During this odyssey, he has not pulled his punches over other players in the Norwegian petroleum sector – particularly those who view the world from the coast of southern Norway.
So Barlindhaug told north Norwegian newspaper Nordlys in April that “the Norwegian Oil and Gas Association is a risk factor in the far north.”
In the same interview, he declared “Norway is going to wear the leader’s shirt in the Barents Sea. So we need to be solidly anchored in technical expertise.”
His criticism of the industry is rooted in hard personal experience: “When young, I was closely involved with many tragedies involving people and vessels who fell victim to the natural forces and unpredictable conditions in the Barents Sea.
“I see that many present participants in the debate on our far northern oil province know and understand little about the weather, climate and darkness we must take into account there.
“The discussion has been characterised by a lack of basic knowledge about the northern Barents Sea. Many of the arguments have quite simply lacked historical insight and are remote from reality.”
“We have weather in the Arctic Barents Sea – and not least a simultaneity in climatic and natural challenges – which is literally of another world,” says Barlindhaug
“The sum total of the conditions we can experience in this part of the NCS is found nowhere else on the planet.
“Those who believe petroleum operations in Norway and other Arctic countries are roughly the same must realise, for example, that Newfoundland or Sakhalin off Russia have no “dark time”.
“The northernmost NCS experiences total lack of daylight for two and a half months a year. In addition come Polar troughs, a dominant weather phenomenon in the area south of Bear Island.”
Icing is another condition which concerns Barlindhaug deeply. He notes that ice builds up around structures at a rate of four centimetres per hour under certain circumstances.
At its most concentrated 15-20 metres above sea level, this phenomenon means that an installation can quickly be encapsulated in thick ice.
“Examples of that happening are numerous and documented,” emphasises Barlindhaug, who recently stepped down as chair of North Energy while remaining on the board.
“The challenges involved are such that I’m very critical, for example, about the idea of using semi-submersible units in the Arctic Barents Sea.
“How could these cope with a combination of sea ice, atmospheric icing and an Arctic storm? What about stability, when no barrier exists if there’s an accident during manual stabilisation? Nobody has the answers yet.”
“Another challenge in the Arctic is the growlers, or small icebergs, which can be very dangerous since they can’t be observed by satellites or seen in darkness or snow.
“We need a technology for finding and identifying these objects when they get close to a facility. Perhaps sonar technology might be the way to go?”
He notes that only a couple of metres of a growler can usually be seen above the water. But it can weigh more than 1 000 tonnes and extend widely under the surface.
“Units which are intended to spend the winter dark time in the Barents Sea must be dimensioned to handle collisions with these small icebergs.
“Moreover, the trend towards a milder climate will mean more ice drifting in from Russia and Svalbard. Very dangerous conditions could then arise, particularly combined with darkness.”
Barlindhaug believes that too much attention politically has been devoted to the marginal ice zone in the Barents Sea.
”This is a blind alley, since activities are government-regulated in any event. So they’ll be pursued a good distance from the ice zone.
“It’s otherwise regrettable that a theoretical assessment of the ice zone, rather than safety conditions, has so far been crucial for determining the drilling window in the far north.
“This has been designated as 15 June to 15 December. But activity in the dark autumn months represents a big risk. Drilling in these waters should take place in the spring light.”
But Barlindhaug has recently noted more encouraging tendencies in the debate on the Barents Sea, and says some of the oil companies have started working well on key issues such as icing.
“I’m also positive about the summary presented by Norwegian Oil and Gas at the conference on HSE challenges in the far north on 4 November.”
He is nevertheless keen to see how the work will now be continued, and sums up the present position as follows: “We must treat the challenges on the northern NCS with the utmost seriousness, and work to overcome them on the basis of the precautionary principle.
“That can be done, but only when we acknowledge the problems and establish the right research projects. The industry so far taken an inadequate approach to the challenges, and has thereby failed to commission appropriate work from the scientists.
“But operating prudently in the Arctic isn’t going be cheap. We might as well accept that sooner rather than later. In my view, therefore, the focus on costs has gained too much prominence in the discussion on the Barents Sea as a future oil and gas province – at the expense of safety.”