* BP controlling wells at Valhall offshore field from land
* Other oil companies considering following suit
* Norway is testing ground for new method
By Gwladys Fouche and Nerijus Adomaitis
OSLO, June 18 Oil and gas companies are moving
their control of some offshore platforms to offices on land to
cut costs and improve efficiency, but labour unions say such
moves reduce safety.
Some oil companies already monitor platforms live from land
to assist offshore crew. They can also remotely control small
unmanned platforms and subsea production units.
Now they are starting to control some operations of larger,
manned platforms, and Norway, the world's seventh-largest crude
exporter, is serving as their testing ground.
Unions say the move endangers safety, a top focus of
regulators and the industry since BP's Macondo accident
in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, which killed 11 people and
resulted in a massive oil spill.
"Would you board a plane without a captain?" asked
Christopher Birknes, a representative of trade union Industri
Energi at BP.
"What happens if there is an emergency situation and
communication is lost between the platform and the onshore
Leading the way is BP, which has moved control of the oil
and gas wells at the Valhall field in the North Sea to its head
office in Stavanger some 350 km away (217 miles).
There is still a control room at Valhall, where processing,
injection activities and the monitoring of safety systems takes
place. If all goes well, however, BP says it may move control of
injection and processing activities onshore, leaving only the
monitoring of safety systems offshore.
Total plans to control from land the platform at
its Martin Linge field, which is due to start production in
2016. Statoil also is considering whether to transfer
some control room activities onshore.
Safety has been a focus in the North Sea in recent years. In
2012, a gas leak at Total's Elgin field in the British section
of the North Sea took weeks to get under control. Production was
shut for 11 months.
In Norway, oil safety regulator Ptil told BP in April it
must review the way it handles risk and maintenance at offshore
installations following a leak at the Ula platform, which could
have caused a major accident.
SPECIALISTS ON HAND
BP says the new procedure enhances the management of
production operations and increases safety, with engineers at
the head office on hand to assist the control room operators,
who are in live contact with their offshore colleagues.
"In the old days, you would have to fly out specialists.
This will save us time and money," BP Norway spokesman Jan Erik
Total said land-based control of its Martin Linge field
would mean fewer people offshore to evacuate in case of an
"We could evacuate them quicker if something happens as we
would need to fly fewer helicopters," spokesman Leif Harald
Oilfields in Norway tend to be smaller than years ago after
companies depleted the biggest fields, putting pressure on firms
to find ways to cut costs.
Costs off Norway are expected to increase 6 percent per year
until 2016 due to increased prices for equipment, material and
labour, according to a 2011 report by the Norwegian oil industry
"We need simpler and simpler solutions," said Ivar Aasheim,
Statoil's senior vice-president for field development off
Norway. He said Statoil also was considering whether to move
some control room activities onshore.
"It could happen in three to four years' time if we decide
to go ahead with this," he said.
He added, however, that the company was conscious of the
potential challenges and would not implement any solution if
officials thought it would endanger safety.
"BAD FOR SAFETY"
Norwegian trade unions are up in arms about BP's changes at
Valhall, which they see as a test case for the rest of the oil
One criticism is that onshore operators are not on the
platform, making it more difficult to communicate.
"To work in a team, you work better when you are near one
another. If you are unsure, you can sit down and talk. You can't
do it in the same way with someone far," said Dag Unnar
Mongstad, a Statoil trade union official. "We do not feel safe."
Mongstad, who belongs to the Industri Energi union, is also
concerned about information being missed, because control room
operators onshore would not be working the same hours as
At Valhall, offshore staff work two 12-hour shifts 14 days
in a row, while onshore staff work three eight-hour shifts on
weekdays and two 12-hour shifts on weekends.
Onshore operators may not immediately notice things that
happen on the platform because they are not there, critics say.
Birknes, the trade union official at BP, is also worried
about the risks of losing communication between platform and
land and of hacking attacks.
Industri Energi conducted a survey among members working at
Valhall. Some 69 percent said they felt more unsafe after BP
moved well control operations offshore, while 31 percent felt as
safe as before. None felt safer.
All said they would fell less safe were BP to move all
control room operations onshore.
But Industri Energi and another union, SAFE, have been
unsuccessful in efforts to stop BP's changes at Valhall.
The Labour Ministry last week confirmed a decision by Ptil,
the oil safety regulator, to approve BP's onshore operations and
said that "systems are sufficiently robust to ensure the
offshore control room (at Valhall) will always be able to
perform a controlled shutdown (of production)".
"The guiding principle to approve BP's solution was that
they can ensure safe operations of the Valhall field at any
time. The authority considers that this is properly addressed,"
Ptil spokesman Oeyvind Midttun said.