Shell has been officially censured for breaking safety rules 25 times in the last six years and has one of the worst safety records of the major oil companies in the UK, an investigation by the Sunday Herald has revealed.
The British oil multinational has been prosecuted, fined and formally reprimanded for repeatedly failing to maintain pipelines and other vital equipment in the North Sea, for failing to report a dangerous incident, and for failing to protect workers from hazardous chemicals.
The revelations, from records held by the government’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE), have sparked renewed criticism of Shell in the wake of last week’s oil leak from a pipeline to the Gannet Alpha platform 185 kilometres east of Aberdeen. The company has been under fierce fire for failing to be open about the leak, which it claimed to have “sealed” on Friday.
Now, critics have lambasted Shell for being a “serial offender” that refuses to learn from its past mistakes. And they warn that the regulatory regime meant to ensure the safety of the North Sea oil industry is no longer fit for purpose.
“This shocking history of warnings, violations and prosecutions reveal a company that is cutting corners on essential maintenance and skimping on safety,” said Dr Richard Dixon, director of the environmental group, WWF Scotland.
“With such a lamentable performance, something like the Gannet Alpha spill was almost bound to happen. The question now is what other knackered bits of kit are about to give out.”
Dixon called for Shell’s North Sea operations to be restricted until a full and independent audit of all their facilities had been carried out. “Shell's poor regard for safety and their terrible communications over the last ten days should be ringing major alarm bells with the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change and the HSE,” he argued.
The HSE maintains online databases of all the prosecutions, prohibition orders and improvement notices against UK companies for breaching health and safety regulations. An analysis of those involving oil companies shows that Shell is among among the top offenders.
Since 2005, Shell has been prosecuted four times: for an explosion at Bacton gas terminal near Norwich, an accident at Ellesmere Port in Cheshire, a collision at the Mossmoran gas plant in Fife and a fatality on the Clipper rig in the North Sea. The company has been forced to pay out nearly £1 million in fines and legal costs.
No other major oil company has faced as many prosecutions in the last six years. According to the HSE, Talisman has been prosecuted twice, while BP, Total, Amec and Nexen have each been prosecuted once (see table below).
In addition, Shell has been served 21 prohibition and improvement notices by HSE safety inspectors since 2005. The company has twice been told it was guilty of a “failure to implement a suitably resourced maintenance regime” on the Clipper rig, once in 2006 and again in 2007.
“This has lead to excessive backlog of maintenance activities for safety critical equipment and non safety critical equipment leading to poor working order and repair of equipment,” said the HSE.
In October 2009, Shell was served an urgent prohibition notice to remedy dangers on the Brent Charlie platform. According to HSE, there was “a risk of serious personal injury because there is no effective means of safely removing toxic and flammable gas” from below a floor.
In April 2007, Shell was accused by HSE of failing to report “by the quickest practicable means that there was a dangerous occurrence” on the Dunlin Alpha rig. There have also been maintenance failures on Brent Bravo and Leman Alpha, as well as problems controlling exposures to asbestos on Leman Charlie and another toxic chemical on Dunlin Alpha (see table below).
Only one oil company has received more enforcement notices than Shell. That’s the Danish corporation, Maersk, which has been served 33 prohibition and improvement notices by HSE since 2005. But it hasn’t been prosecuted.
Other evidence previously released under freedom of information law shows that Shell rigs have one of the worst records for oil spills in the North Sea over the last two years. There were leaks from seven of the company’s platforms in 2009 and 2010.
The most spills were from the Brent Charlie rig, which suffered seven leaks in the two years. The biggest was in April last year when an escape of four tonnes of gas triggered a production shutdown.
Shell’s poor track record prompted experts to question whether the current regulatory regime is working. The company’s performance was “deeply worrying” in an industry which suffered “serious and often potentially catastrophic shortcomings,” warned Professor Andrew Watterson, head of the occupational and environmental health research group at the University of Stirling.
He pointed out that ensuring health and safety for oil workers should help reduce pollution. “But this will not happen if companies can escape the consequences of poor performance and offset much of the human, environmental and economic damage they do onto injured workers and wildlife,” he argued.
According to Watterson, oil and gas spills in the offshore industry as a whole rose from 65 in 2008-09 to 85 in 2009-10. At the same time, major injuries rose sharply from 106 to 188 per 100,000 workers.
“The number of HSE offshore inspectors in the same years fell from 98 to 90,” he said. “These are not figures that inspire confidence either in the oil industry or the increasingly run down regulators.
The HSE, however, insisted it had an established record of holding oil companies to account. The offshore industry was obliged to adopt high standards, which were independently checked, it said.
“Although we are confident that we have one of the most robust safety regimes in the world, we are not complacent,” said an HSE spokesman. “The penalties imposed for breaches of offshore regulations are a matter for the courts.”
He added: “HSE's enforcement notices database is not designed to be read as a safety league table. Counting the number of enforcement notices does not take account, for example, the number of installations a company may operate.”
Shell stressed that its “prime focus” was a commitment to ensuring the safety of staff and infrastructure. “We constantly inspect, monitor and review all our assets,” said a company spokeswoman.
“We work closely with regulators and have invested over a billion dollars in recent years to upgrade facilities across the North Sea.”
But that is not going to comfort environmentalists. “Shell appears to have one of the poorest safety records of the major oil companies,” said Stan Blackley, the chief executive of Friends of the Earth Scotland.
“This doesn't really surprise us, but it's depressing all the same. Shell already has a reputation amongst environmental and human rights groups for poor practice, complacency and misinformation.”
Blackley pointed out that Shell had been fiercely criticized for pollution and humans rights abuses in the Niger Delta. “Fining Shell is not going to make it change its ways,” he warned.
“The executives running the business need to be held accountable for any failings or wrongdoings and, if found guilty of any breach of the law, prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”
Shell’s poor safety record
oil company / prosecutions since 2005 / enforcement notices since 2005
Shell / 4 / 21
Maersk / 0 / 33
BP / 1 / 20
Talisman / 2 / 12
Petrofac / 0 / 15
Total / 1 / 7
Chevron / 0 / 9
Nexen / 1 / 5
Rowan / 0 / 8
Amec / 1 / 4
Amoco / 0 / 7
Esso / 0 / 6
Conoco / 0 / 5
Marathon / 0 / 5
Shell’s 25 safety lapses
date / plant / what happened
June 2010 / Nelson, North Sea / prohibition notice after failure to maintain pipeline in good repair
January 2010 / Clipper, North Sea / improvement notice after drinking water contaminated
October 2009 / Brent Charlie, North Sea / prohibition notice after risk of serious personal injury from toxic and flammable gas
June 2009 / Ellesmere Port, Cheshire / improvement notice because of blocked pipes and drains
June 2009 / Ellesmere Port, Cheshire / improvement notice over blockages
March 2009 / Stanlow terminal, Ellesmere Port / improvement notice after failure to provide information
December 2008, Mossmoran gas plant, Fife / improvement notice because of access problem for emergency services
December 2008 / Mossmoran gas plant, Fife / improvement notice on access for emergency services
August 2008 / Brent Bravo, North Sea / improvement notice after failure to maintain pipeline
April 2008 / Mossmoran gas plant, Fife / improvement notice to reduce risk of traffic accident
February 2008 / Bacton gas terminal, Norwich / prosecuted after explosion, fined £440,000
February 2008 / Mossmoran gas plant, Fife / improvement notice to remedy deficiencies in emergency response
November 2007 / Leman Charlie, North Sea / prohibition notice because of dangers from asbestos
June 2007 / Dunlin Alpha, North Sea / improvement notice after failure to control exposure to hazardous chemicals
June 2007 / St Fergus gas plant, Peterhead / improvement notice after breach of safety regulation
May 2007 / Anasuria production vessel, North Sea / improvement notice after failure to ensure watertight integrity
April 2007 / Dunlin Alpha, North Sea / improvement notice after failure to report a dangerous occurrence
February 2007 / Ellesmere Port, Cheshire / prosecuted after accident, fined £116,666
February 2007 / Clipper, North Sea / improvement notice after failure to maintain vital equipment
December 2006 / Mossmorran gas plant, Fife / prosecuted after accident, fined £12,000
December 2006 / Ellesmere Port, Cheshire / improvement notice because of poor maintenance
November 2006 / Clipper, North Sea / improvement notice after failure to maintain vital equipment
November 2005 / Clipper, North Sea / prosecuted after fatality, fined £150,000
September 2006 / Cormorant Alpha, North Sea / prohibition notice for inadequately guarded winch
September 2006 / Leman Alpha, North Sea / improvement notice for inadequate maintenance and control
source: Health and Safety Executive
This story was followed up by The Guardian.