By Günther Oettinger - 28th March 2013
If a major accident took place anywhere in Europe, the damage caused by an oil spill would probably not be limited to the country where it occurred. Safety concerns all European citizens
Member states must ensure the highest safety, health and environmental standards when it comes to offshore oil and gas, writes Günther Oettinger.
Almost three years ago, when the Macondo oil well blew up at the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico, 11 lives were lost, and four million barrels of oil flowed into the ocean. This resulted in enormous damage to the environment and affected the livelihood of thousands of people in coastal communities. The world was shocked by the scope of the accident itself and even more so by how long it took to get things back under control. It seriously undermined public confidence in the offshore oil and gas industry, including in Europe. And we have to wonder what would happen in the event of a similar accident in EU waters.
Offshore energy production is vital for Europe’s security of supply and competitiveness. Over 90 per cent of oil and 60 per cent of gas produced in the EU is extracted from beneath the seabed, and there are nearly 1000 oil and gas installations operating in European waters. In some areas like the North Sea, offshore drilling operates under a world-class safety regime, yet in other regions the rules are less developed. There is clearly room for improvement.
It is true that only 13 member states have ongoing offshore operations, but we know that accidents do not stop at national borders. If a major accident took place anywhere in Europe, the damage caused by an oil spill would probably not be limited to the country where it occurred. Safety concerns all European citizens. This is why the commission reviewed the existing member states’ safety frameworks for offshore operations, and proposed new legislation to guarantee that the world’s highest safety, health and environmental standards apply everywhere in the EU. In February this year, the European parliament and the council reached a political agreement on the commission’s legislative proposal on the safety of oil and gas operations in the EU. Once the European parliament and council formally approve the legislation, member states have to transpose it into national law and it will be applicable in the whole of the European Union.
This new framework is certainly not a rigid checklist of technical requirements, which may become outdated as the technology evolves or as offshore exploration and drilling moves into more challenging geological areas. Instead, the proposal focuses on safety criteria to be met by the industry and controlled by independent national experts.
Offshore energy production is a very complex and risky business. Oil wells and drilling rigs are like high-tech factories on ships that have to operate far offshore in cold water, often in depths of over 1000 metres. The water pressure is such that maintenance and, if necessary, rescue work, has to be done by remote control. This should not be used as an excuse. We must ensure that member states only authorise companies with sufficient technical expertise and financial capacity to work in EU waters.
According to new standards, offshore companies will have to prepare a risk assessment and an emergency response plan before activities can begin. These plans and their future alteration will have to be checked by independent experts and get a green light from national authorities. Moreover, inspectors will also regularly visit the oil platforms and do on-the-spot checks that all safety rules are being rigorously followed. If this is not the case, a company may be required to stop drilling immediately. The results of these inspections will be made available to the public, so that citizens can see whether safety standards are properly applied.
In addition to prevention, the new directive will ensure that we react wisely and promptly in the event of an accident. The company working at the well must have equipment on site that can be put immediately into operation.
We also have to make sure that the environment and the livelihood of local communities are not put at risk if the operator is no longer able to control the accident. In such cases, national emergency resources must be at the ready to intervene. And the resources and expertise of neighbouring member states, as well as the European maritime safety agency, will also be available to help limit the damage if an accident overwhelms national capacity. To be even more effective the European commission proposes to extend the environmental liability from 22 km to 370 km off the coasts of member states, thus covering all installations.
Last, but not least, it is in our best interests that offshore safety is pursued in neighbouring countries and beyond. Therefore the commission will work with its international partners to promote the implementation of the highest global safety standards. EU companies should then be expected to apply EU safety standards whenever they work overseas.
All these measures seem to be common sense and do not prevent member states from applying even stricter rules, but it is our duty to guarantee that every operator within the EU maintains this high level of safety. National authorities remain the best placed to control this, but we must ensure that these rules are applicable everywhere in the same way. This is good for operators already applying high standards. And it is what EU citizens have the right to expect.
Günther Oettinger is European energy commissioner