Strict guidelines for infection control were imposed by the companies in the petroleum industry, and a number of them responded with reduced manning, temporarily extended periods offshore and postponement of large turnarounds.

Costs for individuals were also high, particularly for those who spent much of the year in quarantine. Oil prices slumped, gas prices were low, and investment and maintenance had to be postponed. That raised economic concerns, particularly for Norway’s supplier sector.

The Norwegian government responded by imposing oil production cuts to meet declining demand and stabilise the market. Temporary changes to the petroleum tax regime were also introduced to help sustain investment in planned and profitable projects and to reduce the negative consequences for suppliers.

How we adapted

We at the PSA also had to adapt our supervisory activities to the changed circumstances. Digital platforms and tools were quickly adopted. We carried out new risk assessments and revised our plans.

Although things had to be cancelled and postponed, we nevertheless maintained a high level of activity and a great deal was done in a different way. Interviews and meetings were held using Teams.

The most demanding challenge was to find alternatives to physical inspections on facilities and at plants. In those case where this also had to be done virtually, much has been solved through the use of video. Companies filmed areas at our request, and we viewed the results as a replacement for being physically present. All in all, good digital solutions were found with the companies and the parties.

Feedback from the companies in a user survey on our follow-up during the pandemic has been positive – indicating both that digital communication was used in a good way, and that good alternative working methods were found. That has called for a commitment both by us and by the companies.

New points of contact were established to obtain information about conditions relating to major accidents and the working environment in the industry when the pandemic broke out.

We have received written feedback on the status of facilities and plants, and we have had meetings with the parties and with company managements where the consequences of the pandemic have been on the agenda.

Topics we have paid greater attention to include the impact of postponed maintenance, the consequences of strict infection controls and quarantine regulations on the psychosocial working environment, and the effects of restricted training and drills because of social distancing rules.

Read more: Coronavirus - information from the PSA

Safety level

The trends in safety level in the petroleum activity (RNNP) process is an important source for establishing a unified understanding of the status of work on major accident risk and safety in the industry.

In addition, the information, knowledge and experience we acquire from audits and investigations as well as in meeting and dialogues with the parties are crucial for building a picture of how the sector is managing conditions which affect risk.

RNNP results indicate that the safety level is still high and has moved in a positive direction over time, with the Norwegian continental shelf (NCS) seeing a decline in incidents with a major accident potential from 2019 to 2020.

But the total indicator for major accidents shows a small if not significant rise in the same period, primarily because of a noticeable increase in structure-related incidents.

The land plants reported 17 near-misses with an intrinsic major accident potential in 2020, compared with eight the year before. This reflected a worrying rise in unignited hydrocarbon leaks and two serious fires

RNNP results related to maintenance management also show that the amount of such work carried out declined from 2019 to 2020, and that less of it than planned was done both offshore and onshore.

We know that inadequate maintenance or failure to carry it out can develop over time into a contributory factor for incidents and major accidents.

Viewed overall, the safety level in Norway’s petroleum sector is still high. But the trends are nevertheless a cause for concern. It is important that the companies get a grip, demonstrate that they understand risk and show that they handle it in a positive manner for preventing undesirable incidents.

Incidents notified to us also rose in 2020, and we initiated 13 investigations – a record. Two serious fires at the Melkøya and Tjeldbergodden plants caused no personal injuries but major material losses.

Four of the incidents we are investigating caused injuries to people, which were serious in two of these cases.

Priority areas – how we contribute

The goal of our efforts is to help reduce the risk of major accidents and ensure that enterprises work better on a preventive working environment and prudent working conditions in the petroleum sector.

In the past few years, our area of authority has been extended to include the transport and storage of CO2 as well as renewable energy production offshore.

We have further developed our strategy in recent years on the use of instruments and enforcement powers in order to achieve our targets, and are now beginning to see the results of this work both internally and in the industry.

Findings from user studies show that our use of instruments and enforcement powers contributes to specific measures and improvements in the companies, and that we are regarded with a high degree of trust.

In 2020, we followed up such priority areas for major accident risk as well-control incidents, hydrocarbon leaks, structure-related incidents, and physical and IT security.

We have, for example, investigated the dominant reasons for well-control incidents, how to improve their prevention, the status of well maintenance, and plugging and abandonment of wells.

New technology, automation and autonomous work in drilling have also been followed up through audits and knowledge-acquisition projects.

For many years, we have been a driver for improved preventive work by the companies to reduce the risk of such incidents as hydrocarbon leaks and lifting accidents.

A survey on the effects of our efforts in these areas has shown that they have been a contributory factor in improvements both by companies and at industry level. Respondents report that instruments and enforcement powers related to investigation, audits and regulatory developments have had the biggest effect.

New technology and digitalisation is attracting great attention in the industry, and developments are moving towards more remote operation, autonomous systems and fully automated solutions. One result will be more integrated systems and complex interdependencies.

Both we and the industry are devoting considerable efforts to preventing and reducing risk related to this trend. During 2020, we followed up ICT security and digitalisation in audits and knowledge acquisition projects as well as along the regulatory axis.

Climate considerations represent a key premise for oil policy, and renewable energy is an important driver for change. The Norwegian oil and gas industry has collectively set ambitious climate goals, and expectations for technology progress and a transformation of production are high.

We are following up that developments in these areas occur within prudent safety parameters. Our audits have looked at how managements take decisions which ensure robust solutions, that companies have good risk management and self-monitoring, and that new solutions contribute to continuous improvement and to reduced working environment and major accident risk

Where the working environment is concerned, we have strengthened our supervision of company systems and practice for following up risk in this area.

The overall picture is that the companies manage working environment risk well and work systematically on prevention. At the same time, we find regulatory breaches and substantial differences between companies and sectors.

We also collaborate with the Norwegian Labour Inspection Authority on enhancing expertise and developing supervisory practice relating to the way enterprises comply with the provisions of the Working Environment Act on temporary hires and equal treatment.

Worker participation and interparty collaboration

Dialogue and collaboration between companies, unions and government are key cornerstones in Norway’s regulatory regime, and maintaining and advancing this relationship have been important – particularly during the pandemic.

Worker participation and interparty collaboration are followed up through audits, status meetings with the companies, the Safety and Regulatory Fora, and fixed meetings with unions and the forum for chief safety delegates with coordinatory functions.

Main issue for 2020 

Our main issue for 2020 – never another major accident – was linked to the 40th anniversary of the Alexander L Kielland disaster. That incident transformed the industry, the petroleum regime and safety work in Norway.

Although much has changed and improved since 1980, a purposeful and continuous commitment is still required to prevent new major accidents. The message from the 2020 main issue will always be valid for this industry. We must never forget, and everyone must make an effort to avoid another disaster.

Looking ahead – learning in an unusual year

The year 2020 was unusual, and characterised by unforeseen changes and adjusted priorities as a result of the pandemic. We are taking many lessons with us into 2021 on such issues as conducting virtual audits and holding Teams meetings in the Safety and Regulatory Fora.

Our working day in 2021 will continue to be characterised by the pandemic, and we will be paying particular attention to its possible consequences – such as postponed maintenance and a demanding psychosocial working environment.

Climate targets and new solutions

The sector has long been characterised by change and efficiency improvements, and this will persist. In addition come ambitious new climate targets and expectations from the general public, the government and the industry itself.

New and more environment-friendly technologies and solutions will be developed and adopted – at the same time as the level of safety is to be maintained and further improved.

Innovatory facility concepts, hybrid energy forms, power from shore and offshore wind power are making their entry both as energy sources and as separate industrial operations.

We will place great emphasis on checking that the industry is actively assessing the consequences of new solutions and on how associated uncertainty is assessed and handled in order to ensure prudent operation.

Strong and clear supervision

The clear message in the latest White Paper on HSE (Report no 12 (2017-2018) to the Storting) is that the Norwegian model is this area is well functioning and should be retained.

It also emphasises the importance of strong and clear supervision which follows up the industry through its visibility, and which utilises enforcement powers in a clear and predictable manner.

We will continue to be concerned in 2021 to check that the companies are complying with our orders and correcting nonconformities, and that our work contributes to learning and improvement.  

Continued development of the regime will be a clear target, along with strong and clear supervision and improving our methods in order to achieve results and effects from our use of instruments.

Priority topics in 2021

We will continue to pay special attention in 2021 to risk and barrier management as well as to operating parameters. Continued scrutiny is needed of how players monitor and follow-up the management of risk and barriers. The goal is a holistic approach in this area throughout the management loop.

In a challenging context with the continuing pandemic and pressure on operating parameters, we will continue to challenge company managements on how they ensure prudent operation and on their role in creating appropriate parameters for preventing major accidents and ensuring an acceptable working environment.

We will also continue to develop our knowledge of how the industry organises itself to handle changed operating parameters, and develop an integrated strategy for following up the way players deal with these.

Experience has show that focusing attention on management follow-up of key management processes which are significance for prevention will have positive effects on preventive work by the companies.

Main issue for 2021 – side by side with the suppliers

The petroleum industry has once again experienced how quickly and sharply things can fluctuate. Revenues contract overnight, operating parameters change and interparty collaboration is put to the test.

Our concern is that these conditions will weaken safety work, in part by shifting the problems down the value chain. That could mean supplier companies paying the highest price – and risk exposure increasing for the most vulnerable workers.

Against that background, we ask the following questions for 2021:

  • how can such a development be avoided?
  • how can the important role and expertise of the suppliers be supported
  • how can assurance be obtained that the oil companies contribute to preserving strong and viable suppliers – while simultaneously discharging their see-to-it duty and their overarching responsibility for safety?   

Suppliers occupy a key position. Their systems, expertise and new technologies help to reduce working environment and major accident risk. While all companies have a responsibility for safety, the parameters for the sector are determined by the operators. This is a challenge the industry must solve jointly.

We must all lift together – for safety’s sake

We will get everyone in the industry involved in reflection, discussion and action related to our main issue for 2021 ­– side by side with the suppliers.