Oil rig firm under fire for accidents, leaks and safety breaches

The multinational whose rig ran aground on the island of Lewis last week was implicated in one of the world’s worst environmental disasters, polluting the Gulf of Mexico with over 200 million gallons of oil.

The Deepwater Horizon rig that exploded and burst into flames killing 11 workers and spilling oil into the sea for three months in 2010 was owned by Transocean, a £20 billion offshore drilling giant based in Switzerland. It also owns the rig – called Transocean Winner – now stranded on the rocks by Dalmore beach.

An investigation has furthermore revealed that Transocean has had 20 oil and chemical leaks from its North Sea rigs in three years, breached UK health and safety law nine times since 2006 and been linked to other fatal accidents.

The revelations have prompted calls for investigations into the company, and how its rig managed to crash into the shoreline in an area identified as “high risk” more than a decade ago. The 17,000-tonne Transocean Winner was being towed from Norway to Malta to be scrapped when it came adrift in strong winds early on Monday morning.

According to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, it could have leaked up to 53 tonnes of oil. There are thought to be nearly 230 tonnes left on the rig, which is being battered by heavy seas.

An expert team organised by Transocean boarded the rig on Sunday using ropes, and is planning to stay overnight. The plan is assess the rig’s condition before working out how best to begin salvaging it – a process that is expected to take weeks.

After the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, Transocean was fined £1 billion by the US Department of Justice in 2013 for criminal negligence. In 2015 the company agreed to pay a further £164 million in settlement of compensation claims by businesses and local governments.

In response to a request, the coastguard agency released its latest report on marine pollution incidents in the North Sea. It revealed that Transocean were involved in six leaks in 2014.

There was a major spill on 13 September when a blocked valve on its John Shaw rig triggered the release of 2.03 tonnes of chemicals and 1.7 tonnes of oil. The rig experienced another chemical leak in 2014, while there were four leaks from the Prospect rig.

An earlier marine pollution report shows that Transocean rigs suffered eight chemical and oil leaks in 2013, including a diesel spill at Queens Dock in Invergordon. In 2012 there were six leaks, including more than 15 tonnes of cement from the Sedco 714 rig.

Marine pollution incidents involving Transocean rigs

13 September 2014John Shaw2.03 tonne chemical and 1.7 tonne oil leaks
27 June 2014John Shaw10kg chemical leak
20 June 2014Prospect870g oil leak
12 June 2014Prospect125g oil leak
3 April 2014Prospect28kg chemical leak
1 January 2014Prospect900kg chemical leak
8 November 2013John Shaw82kg chemical leak
21 October 2013Prospect20kg oil leak
26 June 2013Prospect25kg chemical leak
20 April 2013John Shaw33kg chemical leak
4 April 2013Prospect2.9 tonne chemical leak
5 March 2013Prospect200kg chemical leak
4 March 2013Sedco 7125 litre oil spill
7 January 2013John Shaw209kg chemical leak
30 November 2012Sedco 71415.5 tonne cement leak
14 October 2012Prospect645g oil leak
4 September 2012Paul B Loyd Jnr2.9 tonne chemical leak
5 August 2012Prospect13kg oil leak
10 July 2012Prospect750g oil leak
14 January 2012Sedco 7143 tonne drilling fluid leak
source: Maritime and Coastguard Agency

The UK government’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has issued Transocean with nine improvement notices for breaching safety laws over the last ten years. The most recent in December 2015 accused the company of failing to ensure its pipe racking system on the John Shaw rig was working properly.

In June 2015 HSE said that the company had failed to ensure that contractors weren’t put at risk in a confined space in the mud pit room on Sedco 704 rig. In October 2012 HSE accused Transocean of having ineffective arrangements for guarding dangerous machinery on the drill floor of the Paul B Loyd Junior rig.

The HSE also issued six other improvement notices to Transocean between 2006 and 2011 alleging various breaches of safety rules. All the improvement notices had been complied with, the HSE said.

In April 2007 eight people died when a supply boat, Bourbon Dolphin, servicing the Transocean Rather rig sank in the North Sea. A Norwegian government inquiry concluded that a series of “system failures” had led to the accident.

In June 2003, a worker was killed after an explosion on a Transocean rig in Galveston Bay, Texas. In March 2002 a man was killed in an accident aboard the Transocean Leader rig, 86 miles west of Shetland.

Dr Richard Dixon, director of Friends of the Earth Scotland, accused Transocean of suffering more leaks that the CIA. “The company’s record in the North Sea is a catalogue of carelessness,” he said.

A company that performs so badly shouldn’t be welcome in Scottish waters. ” The company’s involvement in the Gulf of Mexico disaster put it into “the league table of the world’s worst oil services firms”, he claimed.

“The salvage operations in Lewis will no doubt cost the UK taxpayer millions of pounds, and Transocean and the other companies involved will need to be forced to pay this money back.”

The Green MSP for the Highland and Islands, John Finnie, accused Transocean of having a history of spills and safety breaches. “Fossil fuel multinationals have for too long cut corners, leaving local communities to pay the price,” he said.

“We must have a full investigation into this grounding, with appropriate sanctions should the operators be found failing in their duty to operate safely.”

Transocean has previously come under fire from campaigners in the US for shifting its headquarters from the Cayman Islands to Zug in Switzerland in 2008 to avoid tax – while leaving most of its staff in Houston, Texas. The Transocean Winner rig is registered in the Marshall Islands.

High risk areas

The Marine Conservation Society pointed out that the rig ran aground very close to an area identified as high risk in the wake of the massive spill from the Braer oil tanker around Shetland in 1993. The Gallan Head Marine Environment High Risk Area (MEHRA) off the west coast of Lewis was meant to help prevent accidents.

“Over ten years ago, environment organisations warned that without effective management measures the long called-for MEHRAs would be pointless,” said the society’s Scottish chief, Calum Duncan.

“The company involved and relevant government departments have to answer serious questions about why this happened off a sensitive headland, a MEHRA, in potentially difficult seas. They have let down the people and wildlife of Lewis .”

Duncan demanded to know why there had only been one towline. “What emergency response vessels were in place and had they been notified? Were any specific measures in place in the knowledge that passage would be in the vicinity of a MEHRA?”

The Scottish Government is also demanding answers from the UK government. “We are determined to do what we can to mitigate the consequences of the grounding,” said a government spokesman.

“Marine Scotland is already leading work to assess the potential impact on our precious marine environment.”

Transocean’s operations director for northwest Europe, Dave Walls, stressed the company was working closely with authorities to recover the rig as expeditiously and safely as possible. “Transocean is committed to the island’s community – many of us call Scotland home,” he said.

“We have been in business in Scotland since the early 1960s and intend to be here for years to come. We are fully prepared to meet our responsibilities arising from this incident and appreciate the ongoing and collaborative efforts to recover the rig.”

The report released by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency

A version of this article was published in the the Sunday Herald on 14 August 2016.

Photo thanks to Maritime and Coastguard Agency.

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