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ABERDEEN PRESS & JOURNAL: PROTEST AT SALMOND’S NORTH SEA POWER GRAB

08:50 – 27 November 2007

First Minister Alex Salmond was accused of playing politics with North Sea safety last night after calling for the Scottish Government to take over regulation of the oil and gas industry.

North-east union leaders and rival politicians dismissed as “inappropriate” Mr Salmond’s call for responsibility for health and safety matters to be devolved to Edinburgh.

And UK Work and Pensions Secretary Peter Hain said the best way to keep North Sea oil workers safe was through a consistent health and safety regime that operated regardless of borders.

“That is why health and safety is reserved to Westminster,” he said.

The row came as an investigation got under way into the cause of a fire that forced more than 100 workers to flee the Thistle Alpha oil platform in the North Sea on Sunday.

In all, 116 of the 159 workers were evacuated during the blaze.

The incident happened just days after a 71-page brief was published by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) criticising North Sea operators for poor safety records.

The first minister made his comments yesterday during a visit to Aberdeen, where he attended the formal opening of an onshore rig designed to provide safety training for offshore technicians.

Speaking from the event, he said the only body equipped to deal with safety issues in the North Sea was the Scottish Government.

“After the Piper Alpha disaster, there was tremendous enthusiasm from oil and gas operators to improve their safety standards,” he said.

“Although some things were addressed, there is clearly work still to be done.”

“The HSE should report to the Scottish Government, not Westminster, and it should be us who are responsible for all matters affecting the people in Scotland, including matters involving the waters of the North Sea.”

Mr Salmond also called for offshore operators who had a poor safety record to be named in the public arena.

Graham Tran, regional officer with the Amicus section of the Unite union, who supports the idea of “naming and shaming” of firms on safety issues, said now was not the time to play politics with safety.

“The oil and gas industry is not a devolved issue and the safety aspect of the industry should be controlled by Westminster,” he said.

Jake Molloy, general secretary of the Offshore Industry Liaison Committee, said: “The HSE already complies to Scottish law, so reporting to the Scottish Government, and effectively Westminster as well, brings nothing to help the safety of individuals working offshore.”

Mr Hain said that, without a common approach to standards, there would be “fragmentation and confusion” and workers across the UK deserved “equal and robust” protection.

“To suggest that having different levels of protection in different parts of the UK would somehow create a stronger safety culture is entirely without foundation,” he said.

North-east politicians joined the debate last night.

Aberdeen North Labour MP Frank Doran said: “The priority is the safety of our offshore workers and not petty squabbling about who should have political control.

“The reality is the HSE has expertise across the whole of the UK. It has a major resource of experience and technical knowledge which strengthens the offshore safety division in Bootle. Cutting it off from that resource would weaken it.”

North East Tory MSP Alex Johnstone said: “Health and safety is of paramount importance and systems that have been developed as a result of Piper Alpha have proved to be the most robust anywhere in the world.

“The idea that this should be turned into some kind of political pawn by a first minister who is determined to make political capital out of anything is at best irresponsible and at worst could undermine the health and safety system in the North Sea.”

Gordon Liberal Democrat MP Malcolm Bruce said: “Health and safety should not be seen in terms of a spat between Edinburgh and London. It is a responsibility of the HSE, who have been making their concerns known clearly and who have an operation in Aberdeen. I do not think what Mr Salmond said is helpful and it is not the point.”

West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine Liberal Democrat MP Sir Robert Smith said: “Mr Salmond should think before he speaks. It is important for the HSE to investigate this incident and make clear what lessons should be learned. It seems unnecessary to bring the politics of nationalism into it.”

A spokeswoman for Oil & Gas UK – which represents Britain’s offshore oil and gas industry – added: “No one should be in any doubt about the importance that the industry gives to offshore health and safety, no matter where it is regulated from.”

The HSE confirmed last night that an inspection of the Thistle Alpha would begin as soon as weather permitted.

Spokesman Mark Wheeler said: “We also need to determine whether there was any breach of law at any point before or during the incident. If there is any evidence that somebody failed to comply with the law, a report will be sent to the procurator fiscal.”

Last night, Petrofac, which operates the Thistle Alpha on behalf of Swedish firm Lundin Petroleum, confirmed that production remained shut down.

Alan Curran, managing director of Lundin Britain, said: “We know that the safety systems and response processes worked well. Now we have to identify the cause of the incident.”

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Related article

ABERDEEN PRESS & JOURNAL: WATCHDOG’S REPORT CONDEMNED SAFETY RECORD OF OFFSHORE FIRMS
 
08:50 – 26 November 2007
 
Last week’s report by the Health and Safety Executive marked the culmination of a three-year investigation that focused on the safety standards of offshore oil and gas operators.

The 71-page brief condemned the condition of some North Sea platforms and warned energy companies that they were running the risk of a major accident because of years of under-investment.

It discovered the backlog of non-routine maintenance to be as high as 26,000 hours – and only half of the “deluge” firefighting equipment passed a test.

The plant in more than half of the 100 installations inspected was considered to be in poor condition.

Senior managers were also criticised for not giving sufficient priority to maintenance.

The report said: “Companies often justified the situation with the claim that the plant, fabric and systems were non-safety-critical and a lower level of integrity was justified.

“This illustrates a lack of understanding in many parts of the industry that degraded non-safety-critical plant and utility systems can impact on safety-critical elements in the event of a major accident reducing their performance.”

Following publication of the brief, Malcolm Webb, chief executive of Oil & Gas UK – which represents the UK offshore oil and gas industry – said the report highlighted that there was “work still to be done” and that, in some areas, the industry was “not where we need to be”.

Trade unions in the oil industry have long warned about the North Sea’s old and decaying platforms – and hailed publication of the report as a vindication of their campaign.
 
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