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To 50 years of safety
A JOURNAL FROM THE PETROLEUM SAFETY AUTHORITY NORWAY

Hot and cold in the far north

Goliat facility Photo: Anne Lise Norheim
New areas of the Barents Sea were opened in the 2010s, and important knowledge gaps closed. Exploration set new records. The coldest part of the NCS is now hotter than ever – because of a war.

The far north of the NCS attracted much attention in the early 2010s, with Norway and Russia agreeing a boundary in the Barents Sea and great expectations aroused by its Barents South East area. 

The latter was opened for petroleum activities in 2013, while the NPD estimated that about 40 per cent of Norway’s undiscovered petroleum resources lay beneath the far northern NCS. 

Exploration activity in this region was nothing new – the Barents Sea was opened for drilling in 1980, and several discoveries had already been made. 
However, little had been done up to 2010. The question was whether the industry knew enough to handle the risk associated with exploring for, developing and operating fields in these vulnerable waters. 

The need to close knowledge gaps led to extensive work being done to learn more, both by the petroleum sector itself and by the authorities. 

Project 

Industry association Norwegian Oil and Gas got to grips with the issue through a project on HSE challenges in the far north which involved companies, unions and the government. 

Its goals were to increase knowledge about challenges in this region, and to help establish a shared understanding of the issues involved. 

“When we launched the project, views varied about how far activities in the far north differed from those in more established areas of the NCS,” says Aud Nistov, manager for HSE and standardisation at the association. 

Aud Nistov, manager for HSE and standardisation at the association
Aud Nistov, manager for HSE and standardisation at the association Photo: Thomas Brekke, Norsk olje og gass

“Some people felt petroleum operations in the Barents Sea were exactly like those in the North and Norwegian Seas. Others feared big challenges related, for example, to cold and distance.” 

She headed work on the project, which identified important issues related to a number of topics, such as climate and communication as well as health and the working environment. 

Others include helicopter logistics and emergency response, risk management and design, general preparedness and infrastructure, maritime logistics and icing control. 

Johan Castberg facility
The floating facility for Johan Castberg being outfitted at Stord in western Norway. This has come furthest of several large projects currently under way in the Barents Sea. Photo: Øyvind Midttun

“We started with a literature study which provided an overview of what we already knew and where we needed to learn more,” Nistov explains. 

“Our findings were then shared with the industry through a series of themed work seminars. Everything was presented in a report, which included a list of the questions which had been clarified and a few aspects where more work was needed. 

“It was important that both sides of the industry acquired a common understanding of what we knew and didn’t know. Some of this had been known since the days of the heroic Polar explorers, but was not systematised and shared. 

“Other areas required more research and new solutions. But the most important consideration was nevertheless that the project was taken over and further pursued by the industry itself.” 

Among other examples, she highlights the Barents Sea exploration collaboration (Basec). A number of operator companies involved in exploration drilling in these waters joined forces to share experience from their operations. 

“The knowledge project has been important, but will first become significant for safety when its findings are applied in day-to-day activities,” Nistov emphasises. 

Big commitment 

As a result of the big interest in the far north, the PSA was given funding for six large knowledge projects pursued over several years. 

It also highlighted the far north as one of its top priorities in 2014-16. And the specialist Arctic Safety conference was staged three times in 2013-18. 

In addition, the Arctic Offshore Safety Forum was established in 2015 to share knowledge between official regulators in countries with petroleum operations above the Arctic Circle. 

“Our most important message to the industry is that the challenges in the far north must be overcome through collaboration and knowledge sharing,” says Finn Carlsen, director of professional competence at the PSA. 

“The knowledge project pursued by the industry and government in the 2010s was important in preparing the industry and the authorities for activity in this region. 

“Developments in the Barents Sea have so far shown that it is possible to operate under the prevailing conditions in these waters.” 

The knowledge project has been important, but will first become significant for safety when its findings are applied in day-to-day activities,” Nistov emphasises. 

Aud Nistov, Norwegian Oil and Gas

New boost 

Enthusiasm for the far north cooled somewhat in the late 2010s. A combination of disappointing exploration results and an oil price dropping towards USD 30 per barrel meant profitable projects were put on the back burner. 

“But we mustn’t forget that big volumes are already being produced in the Barents Sea from both Snøhvit and Goliat,” cautions Carlsen. 

“And even though the size of the discoveries made perhaps falls short of expectations, substantial fields such as Johan Castberg and Wisting are in the process of being developed.” 

Located about 100 kilometres north of Snøhvit, Johan Castberg is due to come on stream in 2024. And a PDO for Wisting, which lies some 300 kilometres off northern Norway, is expected in late 2022. 

Carlsen feels the increased interest in these waters is good for safety. “Once it’s decided to pursue petroleum operations in an area, a high level of activity is positive. 

“It means better infrastructure and more resources for developing good standards. Again, collaboration is important. Companies exploring or operating fields in the Barents Sea must cooperate on finding good solutions.” 

Finn Carlsen, director of professional competence at the PSA.
Finn Carlsen, director of professional competence at the PSA. Photo: Anne Lise Norheim

Once it’s decided to pursue petroleum operations in an area, a high level of activity is positive. It means better infrastructure and more resources for developing good standards.

Finn Carlsen, PSA

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International politics 

Future activity in the far north, sustainability and political conditions in Europe are all subjects high on the agenda in the industry today. 

“The international political position in Europe means that safety and regularity are more important than ever,” emphasises Carlsen. 
That also applies to the far north of the NCS, where one of the big questions is the status of the Barents Sea as a gas regions 

“If the position in Europe means that demand rises for Norwegian gas, this will be significant for Barents Sea developments,” says Carlsen. 

“That’ll also change company assessments of the profitability of smaller existing discoveries. Exporting gas from the region has been constrained by liquefaction capacity at Hammerfest LNG. 

“Gas pipeline operator Gassco is now assessing opportunities for and the consequences of expanding such exports, both via the pipeline system to Europe and by increasing LNG capacity.” 

He notes that another option has also been introduced through the Barents Blue project focused on the far northern county of Finnmark.  

"This calls for natural gas to be piped ashore there in order to produce ammonia which can then be freighted from the region by ship.” 

Milestones for safety, 2010s:

2011: Common regulations for petroleum activities offshore and on land.

2018: PSA given regulatory responsibility for carbon transport and storage.