INSIGHT: Tragedy will drive safety review of North America shale

11 July 2013 17:29  [Source: ICIS news]

By Nigel Davis

LONDON (ICIS)--The Piper Alpha disaster 25 years ago prompted deep-seated reform of the offshore industry’s approach to process safety.

One hundred and sixty seven men lost their lives on 6 July 1988, as the oil platform exploded and parts of it collapsed into the sea, more than 100 miles (161km) from Aberdeen on the coast of Scotland. Only 61 of those on the rig survived.

Attitudes within the offshore industry subsequently changed radically with much more attention given to process and worker safety and particularly to the management of both.

The wide-reaching Cullen enquiry forced change on the industry. It also advanced the fact that it is often organisational or managerial failure that plays a significant role in process or industrial accidents.

Recent accidents in the sector have produced an even more refined approach to safety at many levels and the recognition that processes have to be in place to monitor leading safety indicators. 

The approach to industrial safety generally in the UK, from the point of view of the operator and the regulator, has changed markedly.

Industrial accidents will, quite rightly, prompt reviews of safety processes and what regulations and resources are in place to allow the effective monitoring of major accident hazard sites and operations.

Maintenance and construction work were being carried out on Piper Alpha while it was still pumping condensate. Major accident sites are usually at their most vulnerable immediately before, after and during periods of maintenance.

Tragic accidents are not totally avoidable in the oil, chemicals or indeed any other industry but oil and chemicals producers have a generally much-improved safety record.

So there is likely to be greater scrutiny of both following accidents in the US and in Canada in the past three months that can be linked, however tenuously, to shale oil and gas.

The West Fertilizer explosion in West, Texas, left 14 dead and has led to calls for much stricter controls of ammonium nitrate.

The US Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works this week urged state governors to take action to prevent ammonium nitrate explosions suggesting that the federal government was not doing enough. “Best practices can prevent disasters,” its chairperson said.

The committee is to hold another hearing into the blast and also into the explosion at Williams Olefins in Geismar, Louisiana on 13 June in which two workers were killed and many injured.

The Williams Olefins cracker was in a turnaround and a capacity expansion from 613,000 tonnes/year to 850,000 tonnes/year.

The dark side of the shale-related energy and industrial renaissance became awfully apparent this week, the consequences of a tragic safety mistake.

The death toll from the oil train fire and explosion in the town of Lac-Megantic in Canada on 5/6 July is likely to be considerable with many as yet unaccounted for.

The Transportation Safety Board of Canada is only in the very early stages of a major accident review.

In a commentary published on 21 June, ICIS Chemical business editor Joseph Chang wrote:

"The tragic fire and explosion at US-based Williams Companies' olefins plant in Geismar, Louisiana, US on 13 June that killed two people and injured over 70, is a reminder that safety must be the priority.

"This should especially be kept in mind as the US undertakes one of the greatest petrochemical expansions in its history - one underpinned by shale gas.

"These fatal incidents are rare, and the chemical industry has improved its safety record over the past decades. But a string of deadly events - including in the fertilizer sector - could make the public and policy makers think twice about the safety of these plants.

"The Williams incident came a day before a rupture from a nitrogen vessel at CF Industries' fertilizer facility in Donaldsonville, Louisiana, killed one person and injured several. On 17 April, a huge explosion at the West Fertilizer plant in West, Texas, killed 14 and injured around 200.

"The US shale gas phenomenon is already spurring a huge investment spree in petrochemicals and fertilizers. There are plans to build seven new crackers in the US, along with expansions of existing ethylene capacity at nine facilities. One of those expansions was being undertaken at the Williams plant in Geismar.

"Along with this industrial renaissance, a focus on safety cannot be compromised."

The Lac-Megantic tragedy widens the safety debate to encompass the entire shale oil and gas boom.

By: Nigel Davis
+44 20 8652 3214

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