Norway's government wants the petroleum sector, the cornerstone of the nation's affluence, to be an international leader in health, safety and the environment (HSE).
The industry has responded energetically to idealistic HSE goals and sets high standards, especially with regard to the environment, where the organisations that police environmental standards are highly vigilant. Goals such as zero accidents are being set, while goals such as zero emissions are being met.
Balancing HSE excellence with business concerns is a tricky equation, especially today when HSE standards are evolving so quickly. Professor Terje Aven at Stavanger University College makes this point and illustrates how far the petroleum industry has evolved.
Aven says that the likelihood of an accident would have been roughly 100% when Norway's North Sea oil adventure began. Then, the risk would have been deemed clearly worth taking, because the rewards were so high. Now the challenges are different, and even analytical projections as low as a probable spill of 1–10% by the year 2020 is enough to cause concern and elicit preventative planning.
Norway's petroleum industry can point to sweeping reductions in air emissions, with the Norwegian Oil Industry Association (OLF) reporting a decrease of up to 22% recorded from 2002–03, thanks to investment in new facilities.
Norwegian oil companies can also boast a successful transition to the use of environmentally friendly chemicals in production, with the worst hazardous chemicals accounting for under 0.5% of discharges in 2003.
The industry achieved record lows in the presence of oil in produced water, and according to the Norwegian Pollution Control Authority (SFT), is on track to achieve its target of zero harmful emissions into the sea from existing facilities by the end of 2005. New facilities will eliminate emissions of produced water during normal operation.
Statoil's carbon sequestration method, where carbon dioxide is removed from emerging natural gas and buried beneath the seabed, has attracted attention as a way of avoiding the emission of this greenhouse gas. And the search is on to find economical ways to inject carbon dioxide to improve extraction from ageing fields.
Besides developing sophisticated techniques to improve its environmental record, Norway has worked hard to learn from the inevitable environmental mishaps. Norwegian companies and research centres have an excellent reputation for responding to blowouts and spills.
The Norwegian Oil Spill Control Association (NOSCA) is a non-profit-making cooperative pool of expertise from research groups such as Det Norske Veritas (DNV) and SINTEF, as well as government agencies and specialist firms. NOSCA was one of the forces behind Europe’s biannual Interspill conference.
Member companies such as NOFI and Noren offer innovative spill control machinery, while ABTEK – a remarkably ‘green’ firm – is creating oil-absorbent products from 100% natural materials such as bark. The company's Reba product, a bark product made from sawmill waste, absorbs oil, repels water and biodegrades into a rich fertiliser after use.
NOSCA member the Norwegian Clean Seas Association for Operating Companies (NOFO), a spill recovery organisation of oil companies working the Norwegian shelf, has a flair for new thinking. The organisation found a way to carry out exercises under realistic simulated spill conditions using popcorn. NOFO is also working with the niche firm Miros, which has developed a unique method for the remote detection of oil spills at sea using radar waves.
A current project involving most of Norway's key universities and research groups is examining HSE culture in Norway's oil companies. Researcher Knut Haukelid at the University of Oslo's Centre for Technology, Innovation and Culture credits advances in mechanisation and serious devotion to HSE by drilling companies and Statoil for a massive reduction in accidents in the late 1980s.
At the same time, improved communication and staff involvement have generated meaningful interest in safety practices throughout a company. Another example of prominent corporate concern can be seen in OLF's announcement in October 2004 that it would be financing a new round of studies into the possible cancer risks that oil workers have been exposed to since the industry began.
On the evening of Sunday 28 November 2004, about the time that the Snorre A oil platform usually carried out its safety drill, a gas leak was detected. Besides the possibility of an explosion, the massive floating platform was in danger of sinking if the escaping gas affected the density of the water. Within hours, 141 workers were evacuated to safety, and soon only a crew large enough to deal with the emergency would remain onsite.
Heavy liquid was pumped in to lower and halt the gas while robots were deployed to weld the area of the leak. Before noon on Monday the leak had been stopped. The shutdown and evacuation had gone smoothly and the emergency repair carried out quickly. The situation was over in hours and without injuries. According to Statoil, only dry gas was involved in the leak, meaning the environmental impact was minimal.
The incident was a graphic reminder of the ever present need for HSE efforts in the industry. The successful operation testifies to the technological advances and experience Norway has gained in its oil adventure, and its ability to keep the price of risk to a minimum.