This is Part 4 of a paper written following the BP Oil Spill in 2010 regarding US offshore safety. In this chapter, we take a look at the history of offshore drilling, offshore safety, and offshore policy in Norway, including incidents such as the Bravo and Alexander L. Kielland in the Ekofisk.
Also bordering the North Sea, and sharing its bountiful petroleum resources, is the Kingdom of Norway. Norwegian offshore drilling first began in 1966; the first drilling regulation was enacted in 1970, following the discovery of the massive Ekofisk field in 1969.
After a few years of relative peace, poor Norwegian regulations led to a string of accidents. In 1977, an oil blowout occurred at the Ekofisk Bravo platform, only six years after it had begun producing. As a post-incident report demonstrated, the spill was caused because the crew had mistakenly installed the surface blowout preventer upside down, a mistake that was exposed during routine maintenance.
While all the crew was safely evacuated, the blowout resulted in an oil spill of an estimated 202,000 barrels of oil. Following several failed efforts, the well was capped 7 days later, surprisingly without any particularly significant environmental impact. The oil did not reach the shore. Nevertheless, it is valuable to point out that this remains to this day the only significant oil spill in the North Sea.
Following the accident, regulators instituted an order requiring blow out preventers on all wells, alongside a safe job risk analysis of all operations. Ultimately, no fundamentally radical steps were taken as a result of the accident. As the next few years would consistently demonstrate, only the death of workers and human safety issues could actually instigate regulatory action.
Just three years later, in 1980, a second incident occurred that truly shocked the Norwegian public and spurred regulators into action. On March 27, 1980, extremely harsh weather caused the collapse and capsize of the Alexander L. Kielland platform, also in the Ekofisk field. The incident and subsequent lack of contingency or safety plans caused the death of 123 people. A later inquiry discovered that the incident was caused by fundamental structural flaws in the rig’s construction. In addition, there was a clear lack of authority or safety plans in place for abandonment or assessment in the case of an emergency situation on the rig.
Together, both of these incidents were able to significantly impact Norway’s regulatory regime for North Sea drilling. A direct result of the incidents was the formation of the Norwegian Petroleum Directorate, one organization given sole power over all offshore drilling regulation and replacing the wide myriad of industries previously in control.
In 1985, a new Petroleum Activities statute created a fundamentally transformed regulatory regime in Norway. The new statute moved away from a prescriptive regulatory regime to one that was much more focused on results and statistics. The new rules made specific requirements on the functions and safety levels that must be met; the exact methods and solutions that the company uses are up to their own discretion.
Nevertheless, the central regulatory agency still offers a set of industry-approved safety guidelines that are, in some sense, general prescriptive regulations. If any company is able to demonstrate that a different method works with equal or greater success, they are able to file for that method instead. As a result of this multi-faceted approach to regulation, Norwegian regulators are able to guarantee strict industry safety standards, while allowing industry to develop new and productive solutions.
Interestingly, unlike the United Kingdom, Norway does not require safety cases from companies, stating that “a regulator’s acceptance of a Safety Case inevitably transfers parts of the operator’s responsibility to ensure compliance with statutory requirements on to the regulator.” However, Norway requires its companies to create comprehensive risk assessments, systematically identifying all risks and explaining how they can be controlled. Similarly, it is the responsibility of the operator to ensure that there are no particularly significant safety issues; the operator is also responsible for any parties working for it (ex. contractors).
Overall, these regulations served to transform the ultimate responsibility for safe offshore behavior from the government to the operator; if a company wants to drill in the North Sea, they are required to conclusively ensure that there is an extremely low risk of any significant safety issues.
In addition, in the years since the incident, there has been a significant emphasis on improving safety conditions. This is an important detail to note. While both the Ekofisk Bravo spill and the Alexander Kielland accident were significant offshore drilling disasters, Norwegian regulators and public opinion only truly shifted following the Alexander Kielland incident, and the subsequent deaths of many workers. The Ekofisk Bravo spill, although relatively significant for environmental reasons, did not drive any substantial legislative shift. As this demonstrates, Norwegian regulation regarding offshore drilling has traditionally and consistently focused on safety features, with a specific goal of maximizing safety, not maximizing the risk of a spill occurring.
Just as in England, Norway has had one of the world’s best safety records for offshore drilling for much of the past 30 years. This is again epitomized in the fact that there have been no major or devastating accidents since Alexander Kielland in 1980. Just like the United Kingdom, Norway has been characterized by a consistently increasing safety standards over time. This is yet another example of how goal-based legislation can encourage innovation and movement towards an accident-free offshore drilling experience.