The Shell-operated Brent Charlie platform 125 miles north-east of Lerwick is to shut down from next Friday on the orders of oil industry regulators amid continuing concerns about safety.
No oil has been pumped ashore from the installation, the hub for the Brent pipeline that comes into Sullom Voe, since January and gas production, which goes through the FLAGS pipeline to St Fergus on the north-east coast of Scotland, has been restricted to one well.
But now the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has served Shell with a legally-enforceable prohibition notice which means the operator will have to cease production entirely. An HSE spokesman declined to give details of the “safety issues” it was concerned about for legal reasons.
Separately, Shell has been asked to resubmit its safety case – a requirement for all oil and gas installations since legislation was introduced following Lord Cullen’s report into the Piper Alpha disaster of 23 years ago – after carrying out revisions.
The fact of the Brent Charlie shut down emerged after The Guardian newspaper obtained details of oil and gas leaks in the North Sea in 2009 and 2010 about which operators are obliged to inform the HSE.
Among those were seven from Brent Charlie, including the release of 4.6 tonnes of gas on 26th April 2010, which was classified as a “major” incident, meaning that if the gas had ignited many workers on the platform could have been killed.
The platform was built in the 1970s and began operating in November 1976, and is therefore among the oldest in the North Sea, but the Brent field underwent a £1.3 billion upgrade in the mid-1990s to extend its operational lifetime.
The HSE spokesman said: “HSE can confirm that a prohibition notice was served on Shell on 1st July over safety issues on the Brent C platform.” He also confirmed the regulator’s demand for Shell to resubmit its safety case for the platform.
The spokesman added: “Hydrocarbon releases are potential major hazard precursor events and the HSE, the regulator, takes them very seriously. HSE investigates all significant and major releases to establish the root cause, assess compliance with legislation and ensure that the dutyholder takes any necessary remedial action. Ensuring a reduction in hydrocarbon releases is a key priority for HSE, but it is not a new issue.
“Trends in hydrocarbon releases are down, but are showing resistance to further reductions. After being challenged by HSE, the industry agreed a target at the start of this year to reduce hydrocarbon releases by 50 per cent over the next three years. HSE expects all dutyholders to have plans in place to make that reduction happen.
“The safety record for the UK offshore industry continues to improve, with the downward trend of hydrocarbon releases being sustained in provisional figures for 2010/11. Since the tragedy of Piper Alpha, when 167 died 23 years ago today, the industry has had a strong track record which bears good comparison with Norway, who are the other big offshore sector in the North Sea.”
A spokesman for Shell said: “No spill is acceptable and we have made progress. We work closely with regulators and invested over a billion dollars in recent years to upgrade facilities across the North Sea to continue this improvement on our performance.”