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'Significant safety risk' if maintenance slips during oil price slump, warns MP

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The risk of another disaster like Piper Alpha will increase if North Sea operators allow maintenance to slip during the slump in oil prices, a Labour MP has warned.


Frank Doran warned that health and safety standards fell during the downturn of the 1980s because “many costs were cut to the bone” and essential maintenance was passed over to keep production going.   

Speaking hours after Talisman Sinopec said it was making up to 300 North Sea workers redundant, the MP for Aberdeen North said the oil and gas industry should be given targeted tax relief to support the maintenance of infrastructure and health and safety systems and equipment.

“The consequences of the 1980s downturn were not only job losses,” he said during a debate in the House of Common’s Westminster Hall yesterday. “All projects that were in progress were stopped. The platforms that were producing oil and gas carried on producing, but many costs were cut to the bone. In particular, areas vital to safety, such as fire safety equipment, deluge systems and others, received little or no maintenance.

“The consequences of that approach were not immediately apparent, but on the night of 6 July 1988 they were there for the whole world to see. The Piper Alpha platform exploded with 167 deaths. It is still the most serious loss of life from any incident anywhere in the offshore oil and gas industry.

“If there is slippage in maintenance through the downturn, the dangers for offshore workers will increase significantly.”

The minister of state for Scotland, Conservative MP David Mundell, moved to allay his concerns, saying that HSE will “continue to inspect thoroughly asset integrity issues and raise those with the industry at every opportunity to ensure that regulatory standards are not compromised”.

“As many of the UK’s onshore installations are working beyond their original design lives and have been exposed to a harsh environment and heavy usage, it is absolutely essential that asset integrity is maintained,” Mundell added.

He said the chancellor George Osborne “has made it very clear” that he would make commitments to the industry in the budget, which is due in March.

But Doran issued a warning about the sector squeezing its contractors – in particular helicopter transport providers – by cutting the price of their contract costs. He said he hoped the industry was taking a “cautious and sensible approach” to the matter and “the government and the regulators will strictly monitor how health and safety standards are maintained on both sides of the industry”.

 

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