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Risk of a major accident is always present

01 September 2010

A disaster such as Deepwater Horizon could have happened in Norway, said Magne Ognedal, director-general of the Norwegian Petroleum Safety Authority (PSA). "We must acknowledge that operations on the Norwegian continental shelf are also associated with risk, as are any and all activities," he told the Safety Lunch at the ONS exhibition in Stavanger on 26 August.

Deepwater Horizon
Deepwater Horizon

The 30th anniversary of the capsizing of the Alexander L Kielland flotel in the North Sea, with the loss of 123 lives, occurred on 27 March this year.

"The survivors and the bereaved were affected for life by the event which represents the darkest chapter in Norwegian oil history," Ognedal noted.

This year will also always be remembered for the rig disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, he added. Eleven people were killed and many more injured.

Ognedal pointed out that a number of international media acclaimed Norway as a model for regulatory development, safety levels and results after the Deepwater Horizon incident.

"We have achieved a lot in Norway over the 30 years which have passed since Kielland was lost," he agreed, but said that a considerably higher safety level today does not preclude risk.

Accepting risk does not mean accepting accidents, Ognedal stressed. "Quite the contrary. But we must constantly remind ourselves that accidents have happened – and can happen again."

The risk of a major accident is present both in Norway and in every other country where petroleum operations are pursued, he said.

"[But] the presence of risk does not mean that accidents will happen. It means that risk must be managed at every level and in every company involved in this business."

He emphasised that good safety is not something which one can claim to have achieved once and for all, but must be pursued in every single work operation around the clock.

"In this way, risk in the petroleum sector can be kept at a level society is willing to accept. And we can reduce the probability that major accidents will hit us again."

Ognedal identified key questions still to be answered, including how to learn from accidents and how to use these lessons to avoid new disasters.

"One thing at least is certain," he said. "Unless we all, the government as much as company managements and unions, sit down and study, assess and analyse the reasons for a disaster, the chance of learning anything is zero."

He added that lessons learnt must be incorporated in the focus on and understanding of risk by company managements, and in governing documents, training, routines, procedures and compliance. They must accompany companies through reorganisations, ownership changes and mergers – and they must be incorporated in government regulations and supervision.

The PSA has appointed a project team in the wake of Deepwater Horizon, Ognedal reported. This will also assess the Montara accident and other relevant incidents which can provide lessons and identify connections.

The team’s mandate is very far-reaching, but its overriding goal is to systematise and assess experience and investigatory findings from these accidents so that they can also contribute to learning and improvement on the NCS.

It will evaluate the reasons for the Deepwater incident in relation to Norwegian regulatory requirements in order to identify possible areas of improvement, Mr Ognedal explained.

"Learning from accidents is naturally a responsibility which the companies in Norway must also accept," he said.

"I take it for granted that company managements and all the players are continuously updating themselves, not least about the most recent major accidents in the USA and Australia, and that they ensure the lessons learnt are incorporated in their own organisation.

"In Norway, the operator has an independent duty to operate acceptably. That responsibility not least assumes a willingness to learn."

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