The 2010 Macondo spill in the Gulf of Mexico threw into relief once again the risks of extracting hydrocarbons from the earth.
With 11 fatalities as the human price of poor safety, the evaluation of the environmental damage of the millions of barrels of oil that escaped is still working its way through the US courts.
The implementation of new regulations and working practice that took place in the UK following the event also has some way to go before being fully realised, with the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) still struggling to meet some of the key goals it set itself.
A whirlwind of internal government and independent reviews followed in the wake of the spill, as the UK Government sought to ensure that a repeat could not happen in the North Sea.
A rapid risk review by the government department led to the hiring in 2010 of three new environmental inspectors for DECC, bringing the number up to 10 to increase inspections of mobile drilling rigs.
Energy Secretary at the time Chris Huhne, said: “It’s clear that our environmental regulatory regime is fit for purpose . . . and the industry’s record in the North Sea is good.
“But the Deepwater Horizon gives us pause for thought and, given the beginning of exploration in deeper water West of Shetland, there is every reason to increase vigilance.”
Then in January 2011, Mr Huhne set headline targets for DECC; the department would take on eight more offshore inspectors to allow it to inspect all of the around 150 manned installations offshore each year.
The extra manpower would also allow it to send two inspectors to high-risk sites and increase annual inspections of mobile drilling rigs to around 24 per year.
The Press and Journal reported earlier this year that despite recruitment drives, more than two years on DECC had failed to recruit and retain the new offshore inspectors, with only three extra staff brought on by March of this year, leaving its team of inspectors around 40% understaffed.
Figures obtained under the freedom of information act show that around a third of manned installations still remained unvisited by DECC in 2011 and 2012, with only 68 of the 150 promised annual inspections carried out in both years.
With DECC inspectors focusing their offshore visits to mobile drilling rigs and deep water installations, it is the lower-risk wells such as southern North Sea gas installations which are slipping through the inspection net.
It is not only, however, inspections of these installations that are being put on the back burner to deal with the manning shortage.
A DECC spokesman added that the minimum number of higher risk mobile drilling rigs had been lowered to 18 from the promised 24.
Just how has the skill-gap shortage hit DECC? Former UK Energy Minister Charles Hendry told the independent Maitland review into the spill that it looks for people with an appropriate degree and five years’ experience in the industry.
He said: “I think for many people they see (being a DECC inspector) as a very important part of their career development. They may not necessarily believe they’re going to spend the rest of their lives doing it, but it makes them better in terms of returning to the industry in due course.”
Posts recently advertised offered a salary starting at £65,912, including base salary and specialist allowance for an offshore environmental inspector’s position.
The department said it had increased the salary range for offshore inspectors and managers last year after an unsuccessful recruitment drive.
The department spokesman said in March this year: “DECC is now looking to recruit eight additional inspectors in order to increase total numbers to 18 inspectors and three senior inspectors.”
Ironically, in talk around Europe’s energy capital Aberdeen, it’s the Norwegians who seem to worry most about the impact of a major spill.
A manager of a Norwegian oil service firm said that any large spill from the highest risk area West of Shetland would be taken by prevailing currents and winds towards the southern coast of our North Sea neighbour.
The key role played by the 100-plus offshore inspectors from the Health and Safety Executive’s offshore division in guaranteeing safety and asset integrity does not undermine the important part played by DECC’s small inspectorate.
They ensure firms comply with waste disposal obligations, maintain spill plans and containment equipment up-to-date and follow the correct procedures to avoid releases.
DECC’s role in enforcing operator’s implementation of environmental regulations extends beyond inspections, with more than 60 staff in its energy development unit involved in monitoring firms’ Environmental Management Systems and participating in various cross-industry groups.
One such body is the Oil Spill Prevention and Response Advisory Group (OSPRAG), set up by trade-organisation Oil & Gas UK to integrate the sector’s response to blow-out capping, spill response, insurance and European response mechanisms in the case of hydrocarbon releases across borders.
In addition, DECC’s changes to the environmental regulatory system since Macondo include companies updating their oil pollution emergency plans, the toughening of drilling consent requirements for deep water and a doubling of the North Sea OPOL spill liabilities cover to £165million.
Though it’s hard to imagine such a small sum going very far towards an international clean-up.
Malcolm Webb, head of Oil and Gas UK, told the Maitland review the benefits of changes in regulations would be “relatively marginal in nature”, with UK regulations mitigating strongly against the likelihood of anything like Macondo ever happening in the UK.
With a greater focus on inspecting high-risk wells, a co-ordinated industry response to containing potential blowouts and a strengthened regulatory framework, could it be possible the former Energy Secretary’s goals promise to inspect all manned installations and 24 rigs a year on the UK continental shelf is now seen as a knee-jerk reaction that will never be reached?
Either way, DECC needs to be make its inspection targets clearer to both industry and the public who will ultimately pay the price of a major spill.