Nicola Sturgeon is under pressure to set up an independent inquiry into safety at North Sea oil rigs in the wake of incidents on the Elgin platform.
A trade union activist and retired North Sea engineer, Neil Rothnie, has asked the First Minister to launch an expert review to make sure that no lives are lost in another accident. The danger of another major disaster like Piper Alpha, which killed 167 people in 1988, “haunted” him, he said.
Rothnie has obtained a report from the UK government’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) detailing what went wrong in a “blowout” at the Elgin rig in 2012. It says that there had been problems with high pressure gas leaks since 2001, and repeated failures trying to respond to them.
On 27 January the rig’s operators, the French oil company Total admitted encountering “difficulties” with gas flow when drilling a well off the Elgin B platform. It restricted access to the platform while the problems were investigated.
Rothnie worked on North Sea rigs for 40 years, for most of time as as a mud engineer. “Transparency is essential if a major catastrophe is not going to rock our industry,” he said.
“Both blowouts on Elgin have been clouded in disinformation by Total. This is reminiscent of the period before Piper Alpha.”
The blowout on 25 March 2012 leaked over 6,000 tonnes of gas for 51 days, causing the rig and neighbouring facilities to be shut down and evacuated. The gas “fortunately” did not catch fire because it was blown away by the wind, the HSE report said.
According to Rothnie, a naked flame was left burning in the flare stack while helicopters were taking away 238 workers and the gas was leaking. “Blowout’s are not inevitable and require big mistakes to be made, usually multiple mistakes,” he said.
“If offshore workforce aren’t informed about what mistakes were made they can’t learn the lessons and avoid repeating the mistakes under conditions where the wind might not be blowing in such a favourable direction next time. And who dies if that happens?”
In a letter to Sturgeon, who happens to be his MSP in Glasgow, Rothnie said he was deeply concerned about another major safety failure and loss of life. “Our collective failure as trade unionists to effectively intervene in our own industry and possibly prevent Piper Alpha, has haunted and motivated me,” he wrote.
“Would you please consider commissioning an appropriately qualified oil engineer or safety specialist to review the reports of the Elgin investigations, with a view to reassessing just what the lessons of Elgin are? And further, whether the lessons learnt so far have been disseminated within the industry.”
Rothnie has been backed by the Shetland councillor and oil safety author, Jonathan Wills. “The only way to restore worker confidence is for the new problem on Elgin to be fully and independently investigated and the results published, along with an unedited version of the report on the 2012 blowout,” he said.
Lang Banks, director of the environmental group WWF Scotland, described the HSE report obtained by Rothnie as damning. “It’s probably time for a more thorough examination of all aspects of worker safety and environmental protection across Total’s operations,” he said.
“In the interests of protecting people and nature, whether drilling or decommissioning, it’s important that corners are never cut by the oil and gas industry.”
After the 2012 blowout Total was prosecuted and fined £1.125 million at Aberdeen sheriff court in December 2015. The company pointed out that it had closed the Elgin platform for a year to ensure that lessons were learnt, and had made presentations to offshore workers, other companies and petroleum engineers.
Total’s spokesman in Aberdeen, Iain Brotchie, argued that it was wrong to link the 2012 blowout with the problems last week. “The two events are completely different,” he said
Efforts to deal with the recent problems have now been completed, and the bottom part of the well had been successfully cemented, he said. “At all times the well was under control at the surface and there was no loss of containment,” he added.
“Precautionary measures that were put in place during the operations, such as restricting access to essential personnel only and also the reduction of production, have now been lifted.”
The HSE pointed out that the latest industry guidance on well control took account of findings from the Elgin incident in 2012. The guidance had benefitted from work in which HSE and Total had been involved, said an HSE spokesman.
Total had reported the latest problems to HSE on 19 January. “Total have kept HSE informed of the operations they have conducted on the well to address its condition,” he added. “HSE are continuing to monitor Total’s response.”
The Scottish Government stressed that it engaged closely with all parts of the oil and gas industry to monitor health and safety. “We will continue to work with all stakeholders to encourage effective stewardship of the marine environment and North Sea oil and gas reserves,” said a spokesman.
“The Scottish Government takes seriously the reporting of any concerns around health, safety and the environment in relation to the offshore workforce and industry.”
A version of this story was published in the Sunday Herald on 5 February 2017.