West of Shetland safety regime beefed up in light of Gulf of Mexico disaster

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Oil companies drilling in the deep waters west of Shetland are facing tougher scrutiny to try to prevent any repeat of the BP Gulf of Mexico disaster.

The UK government said today that there would be no moratorium on further drilling in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon calamity but it announced it was to double the number of inspections of drilling rigs. The team of Health and Safety Executive inspectors in Aberdeen is to be increased in size from six to nine to carry out the checks.

UK energy secretary Chris Huhne said the disaster off the US would transform the regulation of deep water drilling worldwide. “The Deepwater Horizon gives us pause for thought and, given the beginning of exploration in deeper waters West of Shetland, there is every reason to increase our vigilance.”

Oil companies may also face tougher requirements for indemnity and insurance cover in case they cause a catastrophic accident and oil pollution.

Officials in the UK department of energy and climate change (DECC) have reviewed the national system for preventing and responding to oil spills and said they found it to be “fit for purpose”. But an oil spill prevention and response advisory group (Osprag) has been established by the industry trade association Oil & Gas UK along with DECC to examine the UK’s strengths and weaknesses in responding to a Gulf-like incident with a view to improving the regime.

The west of Shetland oil and gas province covers much deeper and more hazardous waters than the relatively shallow North Sea sector where the oil industry honed its drilling and field development skills. Any mistakes in this more challenging environment could leave Shetland horribly exposed to oil leaks or spills.

Shetland Islands Council harbour board chairman Alastair Cooper said today oil from west of Shetland fields could pollute the coastline within just a few days.

He said that was one of the reasons the council tries to persuade the industry to pipe its oil production to Shetland in preference to risking offshore loading onto tankers, as is done in the Schiehallion and Foinaven fields.

The seas west of Shetland are expected to see an upsurge in oil and gas drilling over the next few years with the UK government offering tax breaks to encourage companies to tap remaining reserves and ease the country’s looming energy shortage. It is expected that 40 or more deep sea wells could be drilled.

Speaking in London the UK energy minister Charles Hendry said it was in the national interest to maximise indigenous resources, which meant developing west of Shetland. But he said there was no doubt that safety considerations would be “paramount”.

A host of developments, mainly gas fields, are already on the stocks. Total plans to bring the Laggan-Tormore gas field onstream in 2014, piping the gas and condensate to Sullom Voe. BP is looking to double production from the Clair oilfield from sinking new wells and building two connecting platforms. The oil will also be piped to Shetland.

Others include the Solan oil field, which could come on stream next year about 84 miles west of Bigton, and also Lagavulin, Tobermory, Rosebank-Lochnagar, Torridon, Suilven, Cardhu, Glenlivet, Tornado and Freya.

The European Union is also on oil companies’ case following the Gulf of Mexico disaster, requiring those operating in EU waters to show that they follow safe practice and are able to take full responsibility for environmental and other damage if an incident arises.

All plans for mobile offshore drilling rig operations around the UK have to be assessed and accepted by the HSE. Its offshore division then carries out inspections of well control arrangements at sea, safety and other related issues including well design and operating procedures.

Oil & Gas UK’s chief executive Malcolm Webb welcomed the beefing-up of offshore inspections.


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