Eyeing BP oil spill, British question if North Sea oil firms also push bounds of safety
The BP oil spill has drawn attention to companies' safety records in the North Sea, where an oil rig explosion killed 167 men three decades ago. A coauthor of a report on that catastrophe says that practices have changed little since then.
As British Petroleum and the US try to rein in the BP oil spill sparked by explosions on the Deepwater Horizon rig, some in Britain allege that lax safety practices in its North Sea oil fields could lead to a similar catastrophe there.Skip to next paragraph
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Britain tightened rules on its oil industry, which is centered in the unforgiving waters of Europe’s North Sea, after 167 men were killed in a series of explosions almost exactly 32 years ago on the Piper Alpha oil platform. The platform was run by Occidental Petroleum Caledonia off Scotland's northeast coast.
But as Britain looks for increasingly rare drilling opportunities to ease an economic crunch, oil companies have come under fire for pushing the bounds of environmental responsibility and employee safety standards. Indeed, some oil industry experts say energy companies have largely failed to improve their safety record in the North Sea since the Piper Alpha disaster.
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“There seems to be little evidence of improvements in practices or outcomes,” says Professor Matthias Beck, coauthor of a major study of the Piper Alpha disaster.
Two probes into BP's environmental record arose from chemical spills at facilities operated for BP by Transocean, the same contractor that operated Deepwater Horizon.
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North Sea oil reserves powered Britain toward prosperity in the 1980s. But British production of North Sea oil has halved in the past decade, while the country has gone from being comfortably self-sufficient in oil and gas to being a net importer, making it vulnerable to the interruption of energy supplies from abroad.
Against this backdrop, the oil and gas industry insists that Britain's offshore fields could still be delivering 1.5 million barrels a day by 2020. That would be enough to satisfy 35 percent of the country's energy demand, but only if high fuel prices and tax breaks combine to allow backlogged exploration and development projects in the North Sea to move forward again.