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Questions and answers about the far north

Petroleum operations in the far north remain a highly relevant issue. We have accordingly sought to answer a number of major and minor questions concerning these activities from a health, safety and environmental (HSE) perspective.

Technology and operational challenges for the high north (2011) describes technological and safety challenges related to petroleum operations in the Arctic and on the far northern NCS. 

Download report (pdf)

1. What do we define as the far north?
The Norwegian Government’s strategy for the far north (usually called “the northern areas” in Norway) provides the following geographical definition: land and sea areas from the Sør-Helgeland region (roughly from Brønnøysund) in the south to the North Pole, and from the Greenland Sea in the west to the Pechora Sea (the south-eastern corner of the Barents Sea) in the east.

The most relevant areas for our area of authority are the north-eastern Norwegian Sea and the southern and western Barents Sea.

2. What experience do we have of petroleum activity in these areas?
Petroleum activity off northern Norway is not new, either for the industry or for the government.

The Snøhvit gas field off Hammerfest was proven in 1984 and came on stream in 2007. Due to start production in 2013, Goliat will be the first oil field on stream in this part of the Norwegian continental shelf (NCS).

The far north has become even more relevant with the most recent discoveries – 7220/8-1 ”Skrugard” and 7220/7-1 ”Havis”. These seem likely to become the most northerly developments so far undertaken on the NCS.

3. Does drilling activity in the Barents Sea pose a higher level of risk?
No. Experience and knowledge show that the local geology is no more complicated to drill than other locations on the NCS. Wells are generally shorter, since the reservoirs are shallower. This reduces drilling time and makes it easier to achieve robust well designs. Nor is reservoir pressure high compared with certain areas of the North and Norwegian Seas.

However, greater uncertainty prevails with directional measurement data this far north because of the stronger magnetic field close to the Pole.

4. What safety challenges are faced in the far north?
This area, and particularly the Barents Sea, is characterised by great distances, lack of infrastructure, darkness and a tough climate – including low air temperatures. That presents challenges in several areas, such as the working environment and emergency preparedness. Should a crisis arise, the great distances and challenging climate will make it harder and more time-consuming to evacuate personnel.

 The harsh climate, with low temperatures and ice formation on equipment and surfaces, also has a greater impact on working conditions for offshore personnel than in other parts of the NCS.

5. How does the cold affect physical working conditions?
The harsh climate entails extreme exposure to cold. According to a report entitled Kalde utfordringer – helse og arbeidsmiljø på innretning i nordområdene (Cold challenges – health and the working environment on facilities in the far north), such exposure can be a direct cause of sickness or injury. The risk of occupational accidents is also higher. So it is important that the industry recognises exposure-related health problems in cold climates and implements measures to combat them.

Good routines, winterisation of facilities, and sufficient personnel for frequent change-overs when working outdoors are important factors for ensuring good working conditions in such settings.

6. What is winterisation?
Winterisation involves adapting facilities, including equipment and workplaces, so that they can also be operated normally in severe winter conditions.

The most important and comprehensive measure is to enclose facilities. That presents additional challenges in the form of possible gas accumulations and the risk of explosion.

Examples of winterised equipment include heat-insulated piping, work clothing specially designed for use in low temperatures, and improved lighting during 24-hour winter darkness.

7. What are the most important measures for preventing harm to the external environment?
Petroleum activities in the far north have helped to raise the environmental issue high up the agenda of public debate. Measures to clean up oil spills have received particular attention.

Although such preparedness is an important barrier, however, it is important to emphasise that this is not the most important measure for combating environmental harm.

That is prevention, which remains just as relevant in the far north as it is on the rest of the NCS. Examples of preventive measures include robust well design, good procedures, adequate knowledge and appropriate facilities.

8. How common are icebergs and drift ice in the Barents Sea?
The area of the Barents Sea which has been most relevant for our exercise of authority is normally ice-free. On a couple of occasions, however, bergs have been observed as far south as the coast of Finnmark county.

Both 100-year and 10 000-year limits for the likelihood of southward penetration by icebergs are estimated roughly in the Norsok N-003 industry standard. The Skrugard discovery, for example, lies within the 10 000-year limit, while Snøhvit and Goliat fields are both located close to it.

9. What measures are available to deal with drift ice and bergs?
Action will need to be considered should a development be launched within the southerly limits for bergs and drift ice.

This could include designing facilities to withstand a collision or using subsea facilities with wellheads and Xmas trees sunk below seabed level, and possibly entrenched pipelines. Another option could be to tow away any bergs on a collision course.

Where mobile units are concerned, another possibility would be to disconnect the rig from the well and move it out of the path of a berg.

10. Do any special regulations apply for petroleum activities in the far north?
No. Norway’s HSE regulations apply to the entire NCS. They are performance-based, which means they do not specify solutions but describe what must be achieved.

In practice, however, this may mean that the special natural conditions prevailing in the far north call for technical solutions which differ from those used in areas further south on the NCS. It will be up to the companies to make provision for this.