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Offshore Fires Spur New Demands on BP

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

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For the second time in two years, regulators have ordered BP to address offshore maintenance lapses that have led to fires and risked catastrophes aboard oil and gas platforms.

The lapses include inadequate corrosion management and lack of passive fire protection for steel platforms. In both accidents—one in 2011 and one in 2012—the leaks and fires risked explosions and loss of life, Norwegian regulators said.

In the latest incident, Petroleum Safety Authority (PSA) Norway cited “a number of serious regulatory breaches”  in maintenance management that caused the corrosion and failure of bolts, leading in turn to a “significant leak” and fire Sept. 12 at the Ula field installation in the Norwegian North Sea.

'Major Accident' Potential

Although no injuries were reported, the incident “had the potential to become a major accident, with the risk that a number of lives might have been lost and substantial material damage caused," the authority reported.

Piper Alpha

North Sea countries remain haunted by the 1988 explosion aboard the Piper Alpha platform. The world's worst offshore disaster claimed 167 lives.

One hundred and forty people were aboard the platforms at the time, including five on the platform where the leak occurred.

The offshore fire was the second for BP in 14 months in a North Sea facility, and the PSA authority had ordered the oil giant to improve its maintenance after the previous incident.

In the July 2011 accident, dozens of workers had to be evacuated from a platform at the Valhall PCP oil field after a crane engine overheated and started a fire that blazed out of control for more than 90 minutes.

“Under slightly different circumstances,” the authority said, what began as a minor blaze “could have escalated and created a serious position on the installation, with personal injuries or loss of life.” Production was shut down for nine and a half weeks.

Aging Installations

The Valhall investigation turned up “a number of serious breaches” of regulations related to maintenance, the PSA found. The agency ordered BP to take steps to identify and address “identified technical faults and deficiencies” resulting from lack of maintenance on the aging installation.

The Valhall facility began operation in 1982; Ula, in 1986.

BP Ula complex BP Valhall
BP Norway

The fire at Ula (left) occurred in September 2012; the fire at Valhall (right) in July, 2011. Regulators have ordered BP to review maintenance at both installations, which began operations in the 1980s.

Despite the order, the Ula fire 14 months later also revealed maintenance deficiencies, the PSA said.

The Ula fire accompanied the leak of 125 barrels of oil and 1,600 kilograms of gas. PSA's investigation determined almost immediately that the three steel platforms did not comply with fire and explosion protection regulations, including lack of passive fire protection for the main support structure and process equipment.

In November—even before completing its investigation—the PSA ordered BP to take “swift action” to correct those deficiencies.

PSA says the incident “had the potential to become a major accident, with the risk that a number of lives might have been lost and substantial material damage caused.”  Production was shut down for 67 days.

Corrosion Cracking Blamed

Subsequent investigation has now revealed that the leak was caused by fracturing of the bolts holding together a valve in a separator outlet.

“Seepage in the valve exposed the bolts to produced water with a high content of chlorides and a temperature of about 120°C,” PSA reported. “This resulted in chloride stress corrosion cracking which weakened the bolts until they finally fractured.”

BP found the seepage six months before the accident and had decied to replace the equipment during a regular maintenance shutdown in 2013, PSA said. But the agency said BP should have acted more quickly because it had faced similar corrosion on the same platform in 2008,

BP Deepwater Horizon

BP's Deepwater Horizon exploded in April 2013, killing 11 workers.

Thus, PSA has ordered BP to "review its management system" for Norway and determine, among other things, "why the system has not been adequate for identifying and dealing with the nonconformities identified in the investigation of the leak on Ula."

BP must "assess whether measures planned and initiated after the fire on Valhall in 2011 and other improvement activities are relevant and collectively adequate in light of the nonconformities identified following the leak on Ula," PSA said.

BP must complete the assessments by Sept. 1 and implement remedies by Dec. 31, PSA said.

Norwegian police are still investigating the Ula incident to see whether BP committed any crimes, reports said.

BP Response

BP said in a statement: “BP has received the PSA’s investigation report following the incident on Ula last year. The findings closely match BP’s own investigation and work has already started to address the issues raised and to fully comply with the orders by the end of 2013.”

A BP spokesman told Bloomberg News in a phone call that BP’s risk assessment after the valve seepage was discovered was “insufficient.”

Magne Ognedal

The Piper Alpha disaster is a "terrible reminder of what can go wrong" if offshore risk is not managed, says PSA director Magne Ognedal.

He added: “We have improvement potential.”

In the Shadow of Piper Alpha

While the United States just marked the third anniversary of the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, which killed 11 workers and unleashed the nation's worst oil spill ever, countries around the North Sea have long been hyper-vigilant about offshore safety.

2013 marks the 25th anniversary of the Piper Alpha disaster. In 1988, 167 people lost their lives when the Piper Alpha platform, operated by Occidental Petroleum, exploded and burned on the UK continental shelf.

“It was a terrible reminder of what can go wrong if we fail to manage risk properly in this business,” says PSA head Magne Ognedal.


Tagged categories: Accidents; Corrosion protection; Enforcement; Explosions; Fatalities; Fire; Fire-resistive coatings; Maintenance programs; Offshore; Oil and Gas; Regulations; Steel

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