Photo of gloves in snowy landscape

Time to take the long view

The oil industry currently faces big demands. But reduced activity offers a golden opportunity to plan for future safety in the Barents Sea, says Finn Carlsen, director of professional competence at the PSA.

Important milestones for the northernmost NCS in both 2015 and 2016 raise many questions, not least within the PSA’s area of responsibility. We have asked Carlsen for answers to some of them.

At a time when many projects on the NCS have been put on hold, how important is it that the industry plans for safe exploration drilling and development far from land in the Barents Sea?

It’s very important. The level of activity in the Barents Sea has been very high during recent years. Many discoveries have been made, and several are under development.

These waters are also reportedly attracting great interest in the forthcoming 23rd licensing round and in this year’s awards in predefined areas (APA).

We believe that the industry should make positive use of this downturn from a safety perspective. It’s got a chance to stand back, assess alternatives and think afresh.

Put briefly, the companies should use this phase in a sensible and forward-looking way. A long-term approach is a concept we’ll be repeating often in connection with the Barents Sea.

Why is a long-term view so important?

Long-term planning is the way to arrive at the right solutions. The industry and the individual company must not be tempted to choose short cuts during downturns – and give a lower priority to work on research and standardisation. Short-term thinking now could close off acceptable solutions in safety terms later.

It’s important to solve many issues relating to logistics and emergency preparedness in the Barents Sea, for example. Challenges related to great distances must be assessed in a long-term perspective – and the same applies to a number of other conditions in the far north.

Is a lot more work needed to understand – and overcome – the safety challenges in the Barents Sea?

To some extent. Knowledge is the key to safe operation. At the PSA, we want the industry to complete the safety-related projects it’s launched, and to work on solutions to outstanding issues.

The Norwegian Oil and Gas Association, for example, has identified a number of important issues related to activity in the far north where the industry needs to find answers and appropriate measures. We expect action to be taken here.

At the same time, we’ve defined six learning projects of our own, which have given a high priority for 2015 and the next two-three years.

Could safety standards be relaxed in the Barents to help reduce costs?

No. But the industry can come up with solutions which satisfy the regulatory requirements in a cheaper and simpler manner. We must be open for that – as long as the safety standards are met.

Standards are a fundamental element in the Norwegian regulations. Are these in place for the Barents Sea?

No. A good deal of work remains to be done here. But a lot is also happening. Norway’s been very active in developing standards, in part through the Barents 2020 project.

The industry is generally well under way with producing norms for far northern petroleum operations. And technical committee 67 (TC67) of the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) is working on six specific standards in this area.

Standardisation, both generally and for the far north in particular, is important for safety and has a high priority with us.

Both the PSA and others have called for a collaborative approach in the Barents Sea. Has this been achieved with the Barents Sea exploration collaboration (Basec)?

The formation of Basec is very positive, as is the fact that Statoil and the others behind this initiative decided to open it up. Sixteen companies will now work together on solutions for far northern exploration.

But such collaboration should be expanded. Specifically, we’re challenging the industry to establish a corresponding project for development and production solutions in the Barents Sea.

The industry stands to gain a lot from that, including in safety terms.

Knowledge is the key to safe operation. At the PSA, we want the industry to complete the safety-related projects it’s launched, and to work on solutions to outstanding issues. 

During the PSA’s Arctic Safety Summit in Tromsø in October, it also hosted the first regular meeting of the Arctic Offshore Regulators’ Forum. What is that?

As the name suggests, it’s a collaborative body for regulators in Canada, Finland, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the USA.

It’ll discuss and evaluate challenges and opportunities in order to contribute to a high level of safety for the petroleum sector in the Arctic. That’ll be an important basis for unified communication with the industry.

Why is the PSA giving priority to its AORF membership?

The big international oil companies, such as Statoil, Eni and ExxonMobil, are now making a commitment to the Arctic. They also operate on the NCS, of course.

It’s important that we have a dialogue with other regulators on their follow-up of company activities in Arctic areas to achieve experience transfer and knowledge sharing.

Regulation is also high on the agenda. A number of the countries in the AORF are currently assessing their rules with regard to operations in the far north.

In Norway, we’ve opted for an integrated approach to regulation, with the same safety requirements applied across the whole NCS.

At the same time, as I say, we see there’s a need to develop a number of standards aimed directly at the operations in the Barents Sea.

Action needed now

Proposals must be put into practice after the big collective effort on safety in the Barents Sea, maintains Henrik S Fjeldsbø in the Norwegian Union of Industry and Energy Workers (IE).

A very wide-ranging report on health, safety and working environment challenges in the far north was presented by the Norwegian Oil and Gas Association in late 2014.

Work on this study had been under way since 2010, and more than 180 people from 62 companies, organisations and government authorities took part.

Fjeldsbø, who is responsible for HSE at IE, believes that this report – which covered a large number of topics and proposals – must play a key role in future work on Barents Sea safety.

“We want the industry to work on the challenges it defines – and to take action. Defined problems have no value until they’re turned into measures.”

He identifies four areas in particular from the report which should be given priority: communications and weather data, telemedicine, helicopter technology and winterisation.

“We’re talking about vast distances in the Barents Sea,” he emphasises. “It’s not realistic to operate with the same assumptions as we do today.”