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The Barets Sea: Now or never

Companies must agree on binding and specific collaboration, the industry must accept responsibility, and it must be done urgently. These three points sum up the PSA’s expectations of players who want to participate in the Barents Sea and the northernmost NCS.

The PSA has resolved to define the far north as one of its four main priorities for 2014. That is timely and crucial, observes Sigurd Robert Jacobsen.As the agency’s leading expert on the far north, the Arctic and the Barents Sea, he notes that the PSA has been working on issues related to Norway’s northernmost seas since the 1980s.
“But this subject has now been raised with full force in the Norwegian petroleum industry. Big discoveries have been made in the Barents Sea and many companies want to explore there.
“Attractive blocks have also been put on offer, and important decisions are soon due to be taken on activities in the far north. We have an important role in this.”
Jacobsen emphasises that what has long been confined to future scenarios will be materialising within one to three years as specific consent applications to the PSA. “That represents a big challenge. Once a formal request has been submitted, it’s too late in many respects – and very expensive – to make big changes.
“So it’s important that companies seeking consents start talking to us well in advance. We have a good dialogue today with Statoil, for example.
“It’s the biggest of the players, and we’re very familiar with its plans, requirements for clarification, challenges, measures and discussions.
“But the picture’s very different with a number of the other companies. They must ensure that contact has been established with us in good time.”
He emphasises that taking such an initiative is the responsibility of the companies themselves, and not up to the PSA. 
“We’ll be keeping a firm grip on consents for activity in far northern waters. We’ve no desire to play the role of an agency which has to call a halt far along the road in a planning process – but if we have to, we will.”
Jacobsen secured an MSc from the University of Stavanger in 2012 with a dissertation on
evacuation and rescue in the Barents Sea – critical issues for safe petroleum activity. He believes that the key to good safety across the range of operations on the northern NCS can be summed up in a single word – cooperation.
“We’re now starting to move really far north and a very long way from land. That means the oil companies and rig contractors must collaborate.
“These players must accept responsibility, and should be using the Norwegian Oil and Gas Association to work towards collective solutions.
“That organisation has the necessary muscle and is sitting in one of the driving seats. It should be seizing the steering wheel.” Developing a positive level of safety in the far north is a common responsibility which rests with the industry, Jacobsen emphasises. “Without collaboration and agreements between the players, we’re unlikely to succeed with the planned activities in the Barents Sea. That applies to both exploration and development.
“Specifically, the companies must work together on conducting exploration drilling simultaneously in the same areas in order to comply with regulatory requirements.
“This is a very topical issue. In practice,collaboration between several companies is the only way we can achieve safe operation.”
The far north ranks moreover as a key issue in the Safety Forum, which is chaired by the PSA and brings together companies, unions and government. Establishing good arenas for companyunion- government collaboration over petroleum operations in the far north is also being followed up by the PSA through this body. Specifically, Safety Forum participants are drawing up a list of challenges related to technology, operation, the working environment, emergency response and so forth.
This will be submitted to the programme committee for HSE challenges in the far north, which is being chaired by Norwegian Oil and Gas.
“The safety heading covers all parts of the industry’s operations – the risk of major operations, working conditions for personal and environmental protection,” says Jacobsen. 
“Darkness, cold, ice, changeable weather conditions and long distances from land are among the natural problems faced in the far north.
“They present challenges related to technological and operational solutions, emergency preparedness, logistics and geography.
“Others include access to rigs and equipment, the quality of rigs, collaboration over
such units, winterisation, and transport solutions in general and helicopter transport in particular.” 
A fixed point in the Barents Sea will be essential as a refuelling stop and secure haven for helicopters unable to reach landing sites such as Bear Island, he observes. 
“Many people have pointed in that context to Statoil and the licence due to develop Johan Castberg. We’ve noted that this discovery is ideally placed between the mainland and Bear Island.
“It could also play an important role in further offshore development of the Barents Sea region, and we’re very keen to see what the licence decides and what part Statoil will play in integrated thinking for the area.”
Both Johan Castberg and Goliat are favourably placed for expansion north-westwards in the Barents Sea, Jacobsen says. Further east, the challenges faced are different. “In connection with opening Barents Sea South-East, the Storting [parliament] has specifically asked us to look at the challenges concerned.
“These relate to such aspects as technology, operational conditions and emergency preparedness. We’re currently working on this.” Wrong. In the PSA’s view, having to use the regulations to force through the necessary development in the far north would represent the wrong approach.
“The limits in the regulations are fixed,” Jacobsen points out. “On that basis, the companies must come up with solutions and present them to us.
“They need to do that on their own initiative, in good time before submitting consent applications, and based on collaboration and a collective industry understanding.
“Dialogue is the key. That’s got to happen ahead of the application processes, and be conducted between the companies, the unions and government.” He emphasises that prevention of undesirable incidents occupies a central place in the industry, and the regime now being established in the far north must be robust.
“Very stringent standards and expectations are set for the companies who will operate in these climatically and geographically challenging and vulnerable areas.”
Jacobsen also stresses the importance of remembering that climatic conditions in the Barents Sea are not static, and that the marginal ice zone does not necessarily cover a stable area.
“Big annual variations can occur, with the ice moving further south than we’ve seen in recent years. Planning must take account of such natural variation.”
In technical terms, he adds, a safety success in the Barents Sea could help to clear the way for future activity in the Arctic. The probability of ice is high north of the 74th parallel, and bearing that in mind will be important.
“But extensive research lies ahead. We know a lot about conditions in the far north, and a great deal about what we need to know more on.
“We’re otherwise pursuing extensive dialogue and collaboration with international agencies regulating activities in the Arctic region.
“In our view, the challenges in the far north and the Arctic can be overcome. But both the industry and government have an important job to do. Right now.”