The challenges of exploring new oil reserves are much greater than they once were and in recent years the industry has paid considerable attention to the management of safety and environmental risks, says Emmanuel Garland, head of Total's health, safety and the environment (HSE) regulations division: "We know that zero risk does not exist. Even though that is our aim, we have to be realistic and recognise that there is always a residual risk. So we work on our statistics to define that remaining risk and, depending on its level, we design our installation and define the precautions that we have to take."
Yet in the final analysis, he adds, given the overall awareness and sensitivity of the industry to HSE there is little difference in the approach to simple or complex challenges in tough geographies.
"If you consider corrosion and pipe design, you are dealing with the same physical rules even if it is a harsh environment. Sometimes you have to choose a different metal or another type of line, but you are still working within the same technology."
The process, says Garland, includes environmental and safety analysis. "We design the installations and then we look at their cost, the capex and the opex. Then we look to see if the project is economical. If it is not, either for reservoir or HSE constraints, you don't do it."
A constant question for HSE professionals is how much money they spend on safety and environment. "It is not always easy to give an answer. If you follow the rules in a country that has very strict environmental regulations, is that money spent on the environment or is it spent on the rules? In some countries you have no rules, so you set your own."
Garland maintains that Total's internal HSE rules are sometimes stricter than demanded, as in the North Sea. "We assess the risks we are taking and then we define our set of rules in order to make sure that we have limited or mitigated the risk to an acceptable level."
It is thus hard to know where to differentiate and define the economics of various HSE spends. "We've seen projects in very difficult, remote places where environmental considerations lead us not to go in the end. If they want to offer you a permit where you realise that 50% of the acreage is covered by locations in UNESCO's list of world heritage sites you may decide not to go if the constraints would make any project uneconomical."
During last year's Society of Petroleum Engineers (SPE) environmental performance meeting in Nice, Garland and his fellow HSE professionals went out of their way to attract operational, online managers and were he says, successful. The principle, he explains is that he wants operational managers to build HSE into their own thinking rather than relying on HSE teams to advise them as and when needed.
When the conference meets next year in Rio de Janeiro, he hopes this attendance trend will continue.
"Fifteen years ago, there were big discrepancies in the HSE approaches of oil companies and contractors; discrepancies that no longer really exist. All companies, big or small, have almost the same level of concern."
Garland also notes that Middle Eastern companies have improved their HSE performance in the past five years. "Now most of them are at the same level as their peers elsewhere. They have developed their own programmes, they contribute to the international statistics. It is very encouraging."
However quickly boardrooms embraced the HSE agenda, Garland recalls that it was not always easy to drive the subject towards its present eminence. He was in charge of setting up the first environmental department at Elf, now part of Total, in 1991, which was the year the SPE held its first international HSE conference.
"In my view the public started to think about sustainable development some time after the industry had begun to address it. Companies were keen to forecast the great future shifts in terms of environment and safety."
The industry now has more than twenty years of health and safety statistical data. Garland points to the Lost Time Injury Frequency (LTIF) figure, which in 2007 was down to 0.66 per million hours worked. "In 2006, it was 0.99, so in a single year we have seen a dramatic improvement. If you look back to 1998, the figure was more than two."
The more health and safety statistics are available and the deeper they explore, the more accurately the industry will be able to measure its progress and define where it still needs to go, concludes Garland.
"With the environmental part of HSE however, the improvement is probably less visible," he admits. "With ageing fields, which represent the bulk of production today, you need more energy to produce the same quantity of oil and gas and you produce more contaminated water. But the quality of the production water discharged offshore has improved in the past five years. As a result, despite the huge efforts made, the environmental performance has improved less than the safety performance."
DREAMS and CHARMS
Garland says that HSE is an area in which oil companies have pooled resources to establish best practice. He cites the development of CHARM (chemical hazard assessment and risk management) and DREAM (dose-related risk and effect assessment model) in the North Sea, which are now widely used. Such computational models are, says Garland, part of a suite of tools with which Total assesses projects in terms of HSE.
"We identify the risks from the very beginning and throughout the process. There are very well defined steps for environmental impact assessment, the safety concept and the appraisal, developmental and production phases. One of the main areas of progress in the past 20 years has been the development of these models and simulations. Our models are much more robust than in the past and we rely heavily on them."
But Garland admits that HSE is still a point of rivalry in the oil business. "Companies compete at a certain level on HSE. You want to show the stakeholders that you are better than the others. But that said, it is certainly not at the same level as when competing for a reservoir."
Getting the message across
The failure of the industry to attract graduates and the consequent lack of experienced oil field engineers is a problem, admits Garland, but one that he says varies between countries. While there is a shortage in the US and the UK, he says that in many countries, including France, there is a growing interest in E&P.
Total has no shortage of young graduates from good universities. But there are some HSE challenges. "The question is how we train these new people," says Garland.
"In the past we would have relied on senior staff training them on the job. Now we have had to develop a lot of internal and external training, which includes HSE, but that instruction is being given to everybody."
Big contractors are well briefed on HSE. "The problems start when you have to use subcontractors and sub-subcontractors. You have to be very cautious about the HSE training of all people involved in operations, especially in countries where the HSE awareness is not as high as in our corporation."
But Garland points out that International Association of Oil and Gas Producers figures show the gap between oil companies and contractors is lessening. In 1998, he says, the number of reportable incidents per million hours worked was 1.8 for companies but 2.7 for contractors.
By 2007 the equivalent figures had fallen to 0.6 and 0.7 respectively, signifying a dramatic reduction for contractors.