British politicians will challenge the UK head of Transocean, the operator of the destroyed Deepwater Horizon rig, tomorrow over whether the Gulf of Mexico disaster could be repeated in the North Sea.
In the first televised hearing of an investigation by MPs into what lessons can be learnt from the disaster, Paul King, Transocean’s managing director, and other oil industry executives will be questioned about the North Sea safety regime, particularly for deepwater drilling.
Transocean has a sizeable presence in the North Sea, with more rigs operating than in the Gulf, although they are mostly at shallower depths.
Led by committee chairman Tim Yeo, a former Conservative environment minister, the MPs will ask how many rigs operate with only one set of “blind shear rams” inside their blowout preventer, the last line of defence against a major spill.
The Deepwater Horizon’s single pair of shear rams, which are supposed to cut through the pipe to close off the well in the event of a blow-out, failed to activate.
Transocean’s new rigs are built so that they can accommodate two sets of blind shear rams, which make such a catastrophic failure less likely. But UK regulations do not require operators to use blowout preventers with two pairs of blind shear rams. A spokesman for the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) said yesterday that the rules were “goal-setting and not prescriptive”.
In the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster US politicians have called for the use of double rams to be obligatory.
Members of the House of Commons energy and climate change committee will also ask whether undersea robots would be able to remotely activate a blowout preventer in the event that it failed to shut down a blown well.
BP tried repeatedly to do this in the Gulf without success, leading to the worst oil spill in US history.
Transocean’s record has come under closer scrutiny following a report by the HSE, revealed in the Guardian this week, which said that the company’s organisational culture was based on blame and intolerance. It also said instances of unacceptable behaviour by offshore management were raised with HSE inspectors by Transocean staff on more than one North Sea rig visited. These included bullying, aggression, harassment, humiliation and intimidation, and were “causing some individuals to exhibit symptoms of work-related stress, with potential safety implications”, the HSE said.
Malcolm Webb, chief executive of trade body Oil & Gas UK, as well as the head of a new oil response industry body, will also be questioned. Webb is expected to mount a robust defence of the North Sea safety regime and reject calls for the UK to issue a moratorium on new drilling, as the US has done, until the causes of the Gulf disaster are known.
The British government recently closed bidding for the 26th licensing round to drill in new areas of the North Sea, which was one of the most hotly contested for some time. The round includes new blocks for the west of Shetland, one of the last frontiers of the North Sea which contains more than a fifth of Britain’s remaining oil and gas reserves, most of it in deepwater and rough seas. BP is one of the companies thought to be keen to start drilling in unexplored waters.
Webb will also reject suggestions – first made by Europe’s energy commissioner in July – for offshore drilling to be governed by European-wide, rather than national, legislation. The committee will also raise concerns that the moratorium in the US and Norway could result in more deepwater activity in the UK.
Charles Hendry, the UK energy minister, will appear before the committee at a later hearing. He has insisted that the existing North Sea safety regime is adequate, following a brief review immediately after the Gulf disaster. One improvement already announced is a plan to increase the number of government inspectors for the 300 rigs and platforms in the UK North Sea from six to nine.