UK uneasy over offshore oil, gas disaster plans

LONDON Tue Mar 22, 2011 5:32pm GMT

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LONDON (Reuters) - Britain's oil and gas field operators are ill prepared to deal with big disasters at sea, nearly a year after the world's largest offshore oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the government said on Tuesday.

As part of a parliamentary study into the implications of the April 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the government said that while UK safety rules are already high, operators are still not doing enough to avert similar incidents in UK waters.

"Despite the high regulatory standards in the UK, we are concerned that the offshore oil and gas industry is responding to disasters, rather than anticipating worst-case scenarios and planning for high-consequence, low-probability events," the government said.

The government said it was still studying the final U.S. report on the BP Deepwater Horizon spill and wider offshore drilling activity, along with safety regulator the HSE, and would use the lessons learnt in a full review of Britain's offshore regulatory regime to be announced later this year.

Britain's offshore operating rules were tightened after the Piper Alpha platform exploded in the North Sea in 1988, killing 167 people in what remains the world's worst offshore accident for human casualties.

The HSE may tighten rules again if investigations into the Deepwater Horizon rig disaster, which sparked the worst offshore oil spill in history, show holes in British rules.

In the meantime, the joint report published by the government and HSE on Tuesday recommended that there should always be someone aboard offshore oil and gas installations with the authority to halt drilling operations.

"It is imperative that there is someone offshore who has the authority to bring a halt to drilling operations at any time, without recourse to onshore management," the report said.

It also recommended that UK safety regulators should look at making backup blowout preventer systems obligatory, given the failure of a blowout preventer on the Deepwater Horizon rig seemed to have been one of the main causes of the blowout of the Macondo well.

"For fail-safe devices such as the blowout preventer, the government should adopt minimum, prescriptive safety standards or demonstrate that these would not be a cost-effective, last resort against disasters," the report said.

With Britain's oil and gas production expected to fall by more than 25 percent by 2015, intensifying the UK's dependence on imported fuels, the government wants to encourage drilling in harder-to-reach areas of the UK continental shelf.

The report also said the government should clarify what regulatory regimes apply to drilling and oil spills in the Falkland Islands, where British oil explorers have found crude under the depths of the South Atlantic.

(Editing by Jane Baird)

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