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Royal Dutch Shell Plc .com: Shell accused over oil rig safety


· Firm’s consultant fears a major accident
· Company denies claims of tampered paperwork

Terry Macalister
Friday June 23, 2006

Shell has been plunged into a major safety scandal with a senior consultant to the company telling the Guardian that maintenance documents have been falsified and safety procedures ignored in the North Sea.

Bill Campbell, who worked directly for Shell for 24 years, says he brought his concerns to the attention of directors as far back as 1999 – and again in 2004 – but still feels safety is compromised.

“I am sorry to have to go public on this but if the current safety regime demonstrated by the Brent Bravo (fatal accidents) case study has failed and if improvements are not undertaken another major accident is inevitable,” he said.

Shell was fined £900,000 after pleading guilty to safety lapses on the Brent Bravo platform following an accident in 2003 when the facility was hit by a gas leak in which two oil workers died.

The company, which made £13bn profit last year – a UK record – is awaiting the findings of a fatal accident inquiry at Aberdeen sheriff’s court into the same event.

The company said last night that it was aware of Mr Campbell’s criticisms, had investigated them but did not agree with some allegations such as the falsification of documents. A $1bn (£540m) improvement programme had been introduced and gas leaks reduced, it added.


Mr Campbell says he wanted to put his evidence to the sheriff’s inquiry but was unable to gain entry. Lapses on Brent Bravo were similar to the kind of wider problems he had raised in the Platform Safety Management Review he was asked to undertake on all Shell’s North Sea platforms with a team of inspectors in 1999.

His report, which has not been made public but has been seen by the Guardian, includes allegations that “violations include falsification of maintenance records for safety critical equipment”. It also talks about “inappropriate attitude, skills and behaviour” and “non-compliance with routine maintenance” on Shell’s offshore platforms back in 1999.

It mentions that Shell offshore workers used an acronym TFA – Touch Fuck All – to describe among themselves the need not to meddle with equipment but keep things working. The report by Mr Campbell’s team concluded: “Directives such as TFA encourages a behaviour of non-compliance – the Brent TFA acronym is a potential reputation liability.”

Shell says that an independent investigation team looked into the allegations about paperwork being tampered with and rejected it. “We don’t believe there was deliberate falsification of records,” a company spokesman said last night.

Mr Campbell feels that if his warnings had been heeded by top directors, the Brent Bravo incident would not have happened and safety would be better now.

And documents from the Health and Safety Executive, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, appear to back up his claims that little has changed.

“The Focused Asset Integrity Reviews recently undertaken by Shell have shown up similar safety-related issues, if not more so than those shown up by the Platform Safety Management Reviews undertaken by Bill Campbell’s team in 1999,” says an email by an HSE inspector in Aberdeen, Ray Paterson, on May 27 2005.

Just last month the HSE issued an “improvement notice” calling for Shell to take action for failure to maintain pieplines in the legs of the Brent B and D platforms.

The Oil Industry Liaison Committee, a trade union representing offshore workers, said last night that Mr Campbell’s willingness to speak out confirmed the fears expressed by Shell staff over many years.

Jake Molloy, general secretary of the OILC, said: “The workforce has come to me with a wealth of material arguing that production was being put before safety.”

Mr Campbell said the general safety regime put in place after a review by Lord Cullen into the disaster at Occidental Petroleum’s Piper Alpha platform was not working.

Shell, which operates in the North Sea in partnership with ExxonMobil, is just recovering from the scandal caused by overstating its oil reserves for which it received heavy fines. The wider oil industry is also reeling from a series of accidents including Total’s Buncefield distribution terminal fire, BP’s Texas City refinery explosion and Alaskan pipeline problems.

Mr Campbell found evidence of all sorts of problems with the Shell safety regime when he undertook his investigation at the request of head office in 1999.

Concerns over leaks

Directors in The Hague were concerned at the increasing number of gas leaks on North Sea platforms and wanted an explanation. His four-person team concluded that there was “violation in operating plant and chronic non-compliance with safety-related maintenance driven by the need to meet production targets”.

He told directors about false reporting, fire pumps on Brent Bravo being used for cooling drilling equipment and a 14% level of critical maintenance compliance. He felt, however, his concerns were not taken seriously.

Since 1999 to as recently as last month, Shell has faced repeated gas leaks or calls by the HSE to tighten up safety procedures on North Sea platforms such as Brent, Cormorant and Fulmar.

The company did its own investigation into the Brent Bravo accident in November 2003. Internal Shell documents seen by this paper show it found 472 temporary repairs on its platforms, of which 214 were “not approved” by safety regulators.

When Sean McCue and Keith Moncrieff died on Brent Bravo during a gas escape, they had been asked to look at a temporary repair patch on a safety-critical pipeline in the leg of the platform.

The Shell papers show Brent Bravo had more than 30 temporary repairs of which fewer than 25 were approved; nearby Brent Charlie had more than 45 repairs of which half were not approved; the Gannet field had more than 30 temporary repairs; none were approved.

Shell said last night that it had consistently emphasised the importance of safety and the 214 “unapproved” temporary repairs were in the process of being sanctioned by regulators. “The 1999 Platform Safety Management Review (PSMR) was commissioned by Shell to establish what further improvements were required to enhance North Sea safety performance,” said a spokesman.

“Improvement areas were found and a detailed action plan was developed and implemented, with full senior management involvement and support, following the PSMR. A follow-up audit commissioned by Shell a year later confirmed that progress was being made against the PSMR findings,” he added.

Shell confirmed that in December 2004 Mr Campbell again approached the company with concerns about the follow-up to the PSMR audit. The company says it took these concerns very seriously and, in response, initiated a detailed investigation, under the auspices of the group legal director and headed by Shell’s chief internal auditor.

“This investigation concluded his perception was not supported by the evidence, neither were the serious allegations concerning individuals,” said the Shell spokesman.

The company said it was committed to achieving continuous improvement in its safety performance with a $1bn upgrade programme. But it admitted: “We fully accept there is still much we need to do.”

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