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The far north: Moving with caution

Working in the Barents Sea must be as safe as in other parts of the Norwegian continental shelf (NCS), the PSA has made clear. The industry also needs to take even more care in the far north to avoid pollution.

This article was published in the journal Dialogue no 1

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The petroleum sector faces special challenges as it moves northwards, and the question is whether emergency preparedness, knowledge and technology are sufficient to meet them. Activities in the Barents Sea are characterised by great distances to land, lack of infrastructure, long dark winters and a tough climate with low temperatures.

Finn Carlsen, a director of supervision at the PSA, adds that operators will once again have to pursue their work in close proximity to rich fishing grounds.

“We’ve worked to explain how the petroleum industry should meet the challenges in the far north to ensure safe and responsible operation,” he says.

Knowledge building
The PSA and the industry have already built up knowledge about petroleum activities in the far north over several decades. This experience eventually made it clear that an integrated overview of technical and operational challenges in the northernmost parts of the NCS was needed.

As a result, the PSA ensured in 2011 that a report was compiled to identify gaps in existing knowledge about these issues in the far north. This study also aimed to provide an overview of the research projects which have been launched by the companies to close these gaps.

According to Carlsen, the report shows that much know-how has been accumulated about petroleum operations in the northern parts of the NCS already opened to exploration.

But it also identifies one area which needs a closer look:

“More attention must be paid to preventing pollution. A disquieting number of people think oil spill clean-up is the most important way of combating environmental damage. But they’re wrong.”

He emphasises that stopping oil spills from happening at all represents the most important contribution to protecting the environment in the far north.

Examples of good preventive measures include robust well design, good procedures and expertise, and facilities which are well suited to the job.

An earlier report posted to the PSA’s website has also revealed that temperature and weather conditions could affect existing lifesaving equipment.

Liferafts, rescue chutes, davitlaunched lifeboats and first- and second-generation standby ships may work less well in the winter. Identifying the effect of icing on lifeboats and standby ships is particularly important.

Extreme exposure to cold in the far north could lead to illness or injury, and the risk of workrelated accidents is higher than in other parts of the NCS.

“It’s important that the industry is aware of and takes action to combat factors which make it difficult to work safely,” says Carlsen.

“Examples include challenges to movement and concentration. At the same time, it’s important for the industry to take account of the health problems associated with a cold climate.”

Possible developments in areas subject to icebergs and drift ice need to assess special measures, such as dimensioning installations to cope with collisions. Another solution could be to install wellheads and Xmas trees in pits and to bury pipelines in order to cope with icebergs, which could also be towed away from a collision course. Where mobile units are used, it must also be possible for them to disconnect from a well and move to a safe location until the berg has passed.

Specified level
Norway’s offshore regulations are based on performance requirements, which means they do not specify solutions but spell out the safety level to be achieved. The latter is meant to be the same for all parts of the NCS, but Carlsen says that new challenges may call for other solutions. In practice, this means that special natural conditions in the far north could require different technical approaches from those adopted further south on the NCS.

“But anyone operating in particularly vulnerable or extreme areas will perceive the regulations as ‘stricter’, since more is needed to satisfy them,” Carlsen observes.

“That’s how we’ll work to ensure that the likelihood of accidents is even lower in areas where the impact of an accident will be greater for both workers and the environment.”

Activities in the Barents Sea are characterised by great distances to land, lack of infrastructure, long dark winters and a tough climate with low temperatures.Prirazlomnaya (photo: Gazprom)

Norway’s energy unions have called for operators who first move into new northern areas to ensure that extraordinary safety barriers are installed.

They also want to see a well developed infrastructure which makes provision for a high level of emergency preparedness. Carlsen is largely in agreement with such demands.

“Companies which are going to develop and operate new fields must recognise that they have a regional responsibility to establish infrastructure and emergency preparedness for the whole area.

“Ensuring that any installation can be the base for a search and rescue (SAR) helicopter, for example, will be an important contribution by the developer of the Skrugard discovery. “That would make it possible to cover the area north of this discovery much more quickly than is the case today.”

Carlsen notes that any field developed in the Barents Sea must meet the government’s requirements for evacuation and emergency response. He emphasises that the industry must make special efforts to improve emergency preparedness for SAR helicopters, and says that the knowledge gaps now have to be closed.

“It’s not least important to identify the most appropriate design solutions for facilities which are going to operate in the far north.

“These must make provision for a good working environment while also preventing incidents which could harm people, the natural environment and material assets.”