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Accidents will happen

Posted 17/08/2011 by KatieJ

If only they had come forward sooner. Shell’s admission of an oil leak from its Gannet Alpha platform in the North Sea came last Friday, two days after the subsea well was apparently shut off, on Wednesday – giving plenty of ammunition to NGO Greenpeace to criticise the oil giant for a lack of transparency. After the failures of the recent BP Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the obvious question on everyone’s lips is: ‘Have we failed once again to learn the lessons of the past?’

Roughly 216 t of oil – 1300 barrels – had leaked from the Gannet Alpha platform east of Aberdeen by Monday, Shell reported – dwarfed of course by Deepwater but nevertheless making this the biggest oil spill in British waters in a decade. By Tuesday, the company reported that it had managed to reduce the leakage to 1 barrel/day after stemming most of the outflow.

Chemical and petrochemical industry leaders, meanwhile, are clearly desiring of further safety training, according to a release earlier this week: ‘Demand soars for process safety leadership’, from the UK’s National Skills Academy. The release details how 60 ‘top-tier’ COMAH companies have signed up their senior executives and board members in the chemicals and petrochemicals industries on a course: Process safety leadership – a one-day event that promises insights into ‘the promotion of a positive safety culture’ and to provide a ‘detailed understanding of the business case for effective process safety management’.

Valuable as it may be, however, one wonders whether all of this extra training will really solve the problems. With many of the oil majors firmly set for Arctic exploration – where Shell estimates that 30% of the world’s undiscovered natural gas and 13% of its yet-to-find oil equivalent (10 times the total oil and gas produced to date in the North Sea) are to be found - the real question is what level of risk is acceptable to the environment and against what benefits. As a Greenpeace activist succinctly puts it on the NGO’s website: ‘If Shell can’t get in right in the supposedly “ultra-safe” North Sea then there’s no reason to think they’d be able to manage it in the freezing Beaufort Sea.’

Cath O’Driscoll – Deputy editor

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