Offshore casualty response - a comparative study

The Field

Published: 11 March 2016

Northern Europe and the Americas both have developed offshore industries but, although there has been cross-fertilisation between them in terms of knowledge and man power, there are clear differences in how casualties are handled.

In this article, Wikborg Rein share their experience of the authorities, oil majors and salvage and wreck removal operations in both regions.

Authorities' involvement

Authorities' attitudes can vary significantly depending on the location of the casualty, but some general trends can be seen. European authorities tend to be more actively involved in casualty handling decision making than authorities in the Americas. In the UK, the SOSREP (Secretary of State's Representative for Maritime Salvage and Intervention) has full decision-making authority from salvage and wreck removal to clean-up operations. In Norway, the Coastal Administration approves plans prepared by the owners and takes primary responsibility for organising clean-up operations. However, our experience in Mexico is that the Navy Commander, Semarnat (Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources) and the Agency for Safety, Energy and Environment (ASEA), while remaining informed, take a less active role.

For investigations of marine or offshore incidents, the UK has the Marine Accident Investigation Branch in the UK (MAIB) and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and in Norway there is the Accident Investigation Board Norway (AIBN) and the Petroleum Safety Authority. Based on our experience, similar agencies in the Americas are less active. In Brazil, the Navy and National Petroleum Agency (ANP) conduct safety investigations of marine and offshore incidents, but they are often less involved in root cause investigations.

Criminal investigations by the police are common in both the Americas and Europe, although in Europe they are usually separate from any root cause investigation. In states with large offshore sectors, specialist units are often tasked with criminal investigations into offshore incidents as their knowledge of the industry often results in more efficient investigations. In Norway, the public prosecutor in Rogaland district (Stavanger) has authority to prosecute offshore incidents, four police districts have investigative authority and the Rogaland police district has been given particular responsibility for training and assisting the other districts. By way of comparison, in Brazil, the land based federal police will be engaged in investigating incidents.

Active oil majors

While the authorities may play a less prominent role in accident investigations in the Americas than in Europe, the oil majors are very active in both. They are usually interested in root cause investigations and often push owners to produce an incident report as quickly as possible. From a casualty management perspective, it is important to note that while owners may be required to produce a report at a stage when perhaps not all information is available, this initial report may not reflect the ultimate findings when all relevant evidence is available. Therefore, the initial report should make clear what information it is based on and be drafted in a way that takes into account that the findings may change when all evidence is available. This reduces the possibility of the report being used in a prejudicial way in any subsequent legal disputes.

In the North Sea, as well as requiring owners to prepare a report, the oil majors will often conduct their own investigations. In Brazil, Petrobras follows a similar approach and takes the lead in investigations, involving owners and external specialists where necessary. In our experience in Mexico, Pemex expects owners to appoint independent investigators who may investigate on behalf of all parties.

Establishing a good working relationship with the oil majors is important in effectively managing the incident as it is usually necessary to gain permission from the operator to conduct salvage, wreck removal or investigations in the field. Regular meetings during the operational phase, which ensure necessary information is shared, are helpful in this regard.

Salvage and wreck removal

Many casualties require salvage or wreck removal operations. Owners or operators often have pre-existing agreements with salvage companies and when an incident occurs, the initial response is frequently rendered under these. However, owners should immediately consider whether additional or alternative resources are needed. The contractual and legal implications should also be managed.

For large scale wreck removal projects, it will usually be necessary to engage one of the established international salvage companies, which are mostly based in the Netherlands or the US. Normally, they have a regional office heavily involved in the bidding process and overseeing the project. Salvors are also highly aware of the need to involve local resources in the wreck removal operation and often engage local partners or subcontractors to assist.

An important difference between wreck removal operations in Europe and the Americas is that more marine resources are available in Europe, meaning an operation in the Americas may involve the transfer of resources, such as crane barges or sheer legs, from other regions. This can lead to an increase in time and costs. Foreign units may also require special permits and incur import/customs charges, which may be in excess of what is common in Europe. Local laws may also restrict the use of foreign craft - for example, Mexican laws give preference to comparable local units and a permit issued for a foreign tug may be withdrawn if challenged by a local tug owner.

Skuld Offshore thanks Morten Lund Mathisen, Herman Steen and Nina M. Hanevold-Sandvik of Wikborg Rein for this article.

Photo credit: Lucasz Z, Shutterstock