A wide interpretation of the safety concept is applied by the PSA, which extends to protecting the community against the loss of assets. These include marine life and a clean coast. Work on safety and the working environment helps to prevent pollution damage along two axes, explains Ingrid Årstad, the PSA’s discipline leader for HSE and legal.
“By setting a high level of ambition in this area, we make a direct contribution to minimising the risk of acute emissions or discharges. "
“That’s done in part by continuing to develop the regulations, supervising compliance with them, monitoring risk trends over time and cooperating on important improvement processes. "
“We also follow up how new environmental requirements affect safety and the working environment as a result of new technology, working methods and forms of organisation."
“Through good management and control, companies must ensure that these changes have no negative consequences, and preferably impact positively on safety and the working environment."
“That in turn lays an important basis for safe operations, which minimise the danger of acute emissions or discharges.”
From a pollution perspective, an uncontrolled blowout is the worst conceivable major accident. More than 30 years have passed since such an incident occurred on the NCS.
The companies must have done something right, and continuing to do so is important. But good statistics in themselves offer no guarantee that such an event cannot happen again.
“We can’t change the past,” Ms Årstad notes. “But we can work for a safer future, and that’s best done by learning from earlier mistakes and successes. It’s crucial to be aware that an underlying risk of accidents always exists. Having a sufficient overview of the risk picture is the only way of making purposeful efforts to manage it."
“Major accidents are infrequent, and we must keep ourselves informed about such incidents elsewhere in the world and in other industries if we’re to enhance our understanding of risk."
“Despite differences in outward appearance, work culture and the like, these events always have something to teach us. It’s important that such lessons are applied to reducing the underlying accident risk even further.”
Petroleum activities must be conducted in an acceptable manner no matter where they are pursued, and that includes the waters off northern Norway. The interesting question about operations there is not whether they are more challenging than further south, but what is actually challenging in each case and what must thereby be done to operate acceptably in compliance with the regulations.
How much of a burden the environment can cope with is determined by the Norwegian Climate and Pollution Agency (Klif, which has replaced the SFT) and a number of specialist bodies.
The PSA’s job is to ensure that preventive action by the responsible companies is proportionate to the potential consequences of an incident – not least for the environment.
This means in practice that the regulations set stricter standards for technical and operational solutions in areas where the potential environmental impact is seen as substantial.
While, other kinds of acute spills may not be as dramatic as a blowout, they can nevertheless harm the environment. The biggest sources of such pollution in recent years have been offshore loading hoses, slip joints and leaks from subsea wells.
Hoses breaking during offshore loading of shuttle tankers can cause big spills, as on Statfjord in the North Sea during 2007. Some 4 000 tonnes of crude escaped before the leak was noticed.
After a joint investigation by the former SFT and the PSA, this incident resulted in an order to take organisational, technical and emergency response action.
Both regulators have subsequently monitored how operator Statoil and the contractors concerned have identified and implemented the necessary measures. A number of these have also been significant for installations other than the one where the accident happened, so the risk of such events should now have been reduced.
Although leaks from slip joints seldom cause large spills, their number has been relatively high in recent years and the PSA has pressed the industry to put a stop to them. Relevant measures currently being pursued focus both on challenges related to seals and on technical and administrative action to ensure that leaks are detected and halted immediately.
Leaks from subsea wells have presented challenges because they can be difficult to spot. In recent years, however, the industry has developed a number of measures for quick and efficient detection.
The PSA will ensure that the industry maintains its efforts to develop and adopt good solutions in this area, especially for wells in particularly sensitive environments.
At the same time, it is important to appreciate that detection represents an extra safety measure on top of preventing the leak in the first place. The PSA’s continuous monitoring of accident risk in the petroleum industry is summarised annually in its trends in risk level in the petroleum activity (RNNP) report.
Work was initiated in 2009 on utilising existing data from this study to improve the monitoring of risk trends for incidents which could lead to acute pollution. Since the RNNP has proved a good tool for managing systematic risk-reduction efforts,
the PSA expects that this work can also help to reduce the threat of acute pollution.