The very first well on the NCS was spudded in the summer of 1966. That was a milestone in Norwegian oil history – and the start of a 50-year tale of upswings and downturns, celebration and catastrophe, and tough times and bold decisions. Safety runs like a red thread through all these years. Constant progress has been made since 1966, and Norway has undoubtedly achieved a high safety and working environment performance in petroleum operations.
Ten milestones for safety
1 Early years
When the first exploration well was spudded on the NCS in 1966, regulatory responsibility for safety rested with the then Ministry of Industry.
No regulations for safety and the working environment had been put in place, but the government assumed that the companies would comply with recognised norms.
US industrial standards dominated, which was natural enough since most of the early players were American. The companies brought not only valuable knowledge and experience, but also a work culture alien to Norway in a number of ways.
Many of the Norwegians employed in the early days had little or no relevant technical education. Training often consisted of a quick introduction by the individual’s supervisor.
Statistics for accidents and injuries in these years are very deficient, but risk – particularly for personal injury – was undoubtedly pretty high.
2 Regulator created
Establishing state oil company Statoil and the Norwegian Petroleum Directorate (NPD) by the Storting (parliament) in 1972 clarified the division of roles between government, industry and regulators.
The NPD was initially responsible for regulating both resources and safety. But the job of safety regulation was separated off in 2004 to the PSA.
Work on a regulatory regime for safety led to the first regulations – for drilling in 1975 and production in 1976. This created a formal and predictable safety role for the NPD.
Among the many serious accidents which occurred in the early years, the oil blowout on the Ekofisk 2/4 Bravo platform in 1977 was particularly significant for safety developments.
Nobody died or was seriously injured, but this incident was a serious wake-up call to the whole of Norwegian society about the potential for major accidents in offshore petroleum operations.
The investigation report after the blowout identified a lack of expertise as one of its direct causes.
A number of measures were instituted by the government, including the appropriation of large sums for research programmes on safety.
4 Responsibility clarified
The detailed requirements in the initial regulations and the way they were enforced meant that the players did not take full responsibility for their own decisions. Instead, they relied on the specific demands and orders imposed after NPD inspections.
However, guidelines on internal control issued by the directorate in 1979 emphasised that responsibility for safety rested with the companies concerned.
That laid the basis for a shift of orientation in government regulation away from specifying technical details towards exercising supervision of the company’s own management.
At the same time, a gradual process began to replace specific regulatory rules with performance-based requirements which identified what had to be achieved.
5 Regulatory reorganisation
The Alexander L Kielland flotel disaster in 1980 and the subsequent technical investigation focused attention on the way the government’s regulatory responsibility was organised.
It emerged that unclear boundaries between agencies could impose restraints on further safety improvements.
The government accordingly decided that the NPD would be the lead regulator from June 1985 for offshore petroleum operations, covering both fixed and floating facilities.
Various other agencies which had previously had a regulatory responsibility for these structures would now be confined to giving technical advice to the NPD as and when required.
Furthermore, improved coordination was established between the regulators which were still to have an offshore role.
6 Unified regulations
Following the 1985 reorganisation, the NPD became the owner of many regulations developed by other agencies with differing approaches as well as overlapping and contradictory provisions.
A comprehensive revision of these ordinances resulted in 14 regulations divided into technical subjects relevant for the industry. These came into force in 1992.
It eventually transpired that this structure was sub-optimal in terms of the growing attention being paid to a company’s own ability to manage the safety of its activities.
A reform completed in 2000 split the regulations up in accordance with the main functions in the industry’s operations, an approach which has persisted with minor modifications.
7 Three parties
Collaboration between companies, unions and government has always been a cornerstone of supervision by the NPD and later the PSA, and remains a precondition for the current regime.
This relationship was formalised in 2001 with the creation of the Safety Forum to initiate, discuss and follow up relevant safety, emergency preparedness and working environment issues.
With the PSA in the chair, this tripartite body deals with major accident and working environment risk, collaboration and a number of other significant conditions in this area.
Another important arena for tripartite action is the Regulatory Forum for information, discussion, advice and feedback on the work of developing and maintaining the regulations.
The 1990s were characterised by company mergers and the outsourcing of non-core activities, creating uncertainty about possible negative effects on safety.
Up to 2000, the PSA developed an instrument in cooperation with the companies and the unions to determine whether risk was increasing or decreasing.
Known as the trends in risk level in the petroleum activity (RNNP), this tool processes data about a large number of risk types in an advanced computer model.
It has put an end to lengthy discussions between the parties about how risk is developing, so that energy can be devoted to those areas with the greatest need.
The annual RNNP report has become an important part of the basis for planning the PSA’s supervisory activities. It also helps the companies to plan their risk-reduction efforts.
9 A new agency
The government resolved in late 2002 to establish a new regulator to take over work on safety and the working environment in the petroleum sector from the NPD.
Effective from 1 January 2004, the creation of the PSA had no immediate impact on the regulatory regime. This continued to be maintained and developed in line with existing principles.
The PSA also took over regulatory responsibility from the start for eight petroleum-related facilities based on land in Norway.
10 Is the trend reversed?
The RNNP measurement tool and earlier statistics for accidents and incidents revealed a clear improvement in safety from the start of Norwegian petroleum operations until recent years.
Minor variations in the figures are natural, but a clear trend now appears to be emerging that risk developments are moving in the wrong direction.
The PSA does not want to wait until this leads to a major accident, and has therefore launched reversing the trend as the main issue for its supervisory activities in 2017.
Developments are to be pulled back onto the right track – with the PSA as the driving force and the industry responsible for implementation.