Offshore industry must remember and learn from tragedy

July 17, 2017
Because life's biggest lessons come from mistakes, remembering what some might wish to forget is important.

Because life's biggest lessons come from mistakes, remembering what some might wish to forget is important.

People still observe the anniversary of the worst tragedy in the offshore oil and gas industry's history.

For the Pipe Alpha explosion and fire off Scotland, July 6 was Number 29.

Many oil and gas professionals weren't even born when 167 workers perished after hydrocarbons leaked from pipework connected to a condensate pump in the gas-compression module and ignited.

Many more, of course, are too young to have any memory of the disaster.

Fortunately for them and everyone else, reminders are in place.

There is, for example, the memorial in Aberdeen's Hazlehead Park, with its haunting statue of three men dressed for perilous work and base inscribed with names of 30 victims whose bodies never were found.

And there's a safety regime nothing like the one in place three decades ago.

The UK government responded to the Piper Alpha explosion by convening a study group led by a Scottish judge, Lord William Douglas Cullen, who spent 13 months on the probe.

Ultimately, the government adopted all 106 of the detailed recommendations in the historic Cullen Report, which sharply criticized operator Occidental Petroleum (Calendonia) Ltd. and the UK Department of Energy's safety inspectorate.

The recommendations overhauled regulation and operation.

The government severed offshore safety from other regulatory functions. And it replaced prescriptive regulation with customized goal-setting in a "safety cases" system.

Lord Cullen stayed largely silent on the matter until sitting for an interview with a BBC reporter shortly before the 25th Piper Alpha anniversary.

Might something like Piper Alpha happen again? he was asked.

"People have written the words 'never say never,' and I wouldn't be so presumptuous to say something really bad couldn't ever happen," he said. "But we have done a great deal to reduce the risk, and the rest is over to the way in which management handles its safety arrangements."

Indeed. Let neither management nor the managed ever forget.

About the Author

Bob Tippee | Editor

Bob Tippee has been chief editor of Oil & Gas Journal since January 1999 and a member of the Journal staff since October 1977. Before joining the magazine, he worked as a reporter at the Tulsa World and served for four years as an officer in the US Air Force. A native of St. Louis, he holds a degree in journalism from the University of Tulsa.