Piper Alpha: 25 years on parliamentary reception

Speech by Energy Minister, Michael Fallon MP, to the parliamentary reception marking 25 years on from the Piper Alpha disaster.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

The Rt Hon Sir Michael  Fallon MP

Good evening.

Thank you for inviting me to this important reception tonight. I am glad to have an opportunity to talk to you and to remember the tragic events of the Piper Alpha platform and those who sadly lost their lives, their families and loved ones, the survivors and all who were involved that fateful night.

The Oil and Gas industry is extremely important to the UK and is one of our greatest industrial success stories. The sector makes significant economic contributions and the resultant prosperity is spread throughout the UK. We must however never forget how hazardous an industry it is both in terms of the hostile environment of the North Sea and the somewhat volatile nature of the hydrocarbons we are harvesting from beneath the seabed. In our quest for affordable energy it is paramount the highest safety standards are followed by everyone.

I know there are relatives here tonight of some who perished and there are also survivors whose memory of the incident will haunt them for ever. The past cannot be changed but we will never forget them or the enormity of the 6th July 1988 and the important lessons which were learned that night.

Energy is vital in all aspects of life and we all use it in one way or another. We need energy to heat and light our homes, to power businesses and to transport people and goods. The industry however is invisible to the majority of the population and many have no idea how the gas arrives at their boilers or the petrol at the filling station. It is all too easy to take this resource for granted without realising that we simply could not function in modern society without it. And it is the hard work that is undertaken by our offshore workforce every day that makes this resource available to us

This industry is unlike any other. I am in awe of its breath-taking drive, the refusal to be daunted by overwhelming challenges, its long term ambition and the courage of its people. And we should never forget that the North Sea is a hostile environment and that safety must always be a priority

As Energy Minister I have a responsibility in offshore safety and I know industry work tirelessly on this issue, consequently there has been a real improvement in procedures offshore since Piper Alpha, however we are facing many new challenges in what is a mature province with ageing infrastructure. With 20 billion barrels or more still to be drawn from the UK’s North Sea fields we must never, never become complacent where safety is concerned. The continued need to ensure that we have a robust health and safety regime in the North Sea is extremely important and it is a responsibility that is shared by both Industry and Government. By working together we can prevent future catastrophes like Piper Alpha.

I would like to talk for a moment about the Cullen report. The Government at the time of the disaster set up an inquiry under the chairmanship of Lord Cullen to establish the cause of the accident. The thoroughness and importance of this report has never been questioned and the changes which were made to the UK’s offshore safety regime following the report have had a lasting impact. In particular, there are some key principles, like the offshore safety case regime and the introduction of goal setting legislation that have stood the test of time.

I believe that one of the key challenges the Industry, workforce and regulators face today and longer-term, is how do they stay true to the abiding principles introduced by Lord Cullen, but in a world which is substantially different from that in 1988 and which continues to change and develop at an even faster pace. For example, new technologies have to be adopted and new inexperienced companies are coming into the UKCS to work. Maintaining continuity with those things from the past, which still hold true but adapting to this ever-changing environment, will be key to a successful and safe North Sea.

I am proud of the world-class regulatory framework on offshore oil and gas safety that we have in the UK and also proud of the continuous work that is carried out by my officials in relation to the challenging work areas such as ageing infrastructure and field life extension.

I am encouraged by the Health and Safety report published by Oil and Gas UK last month. It showed that there has been a continued improvement to keep offshore workforce ever safer. I would like to take a moment to share some of the findings:

  • There has been a 48% reduction in the number of oil & gas leaks over three years.
  • Despite being a major hazard industry, Oil & Gas has long performed well in terms of non-fatal accidents and has been better than sectors that would generally be considered low hazard, including retail and public sector.
  • There has been a steady reduction in incidences of over three day injuries, and a reduction in combined fatal and major injury rates

I would also like to mention the oil and gas industry’s safety organisation, Step Change in Safety, who has played a leading role in the progress that has been made along with the focused, collaborative effort of companies, workforce representatives, Trade Unions and the HSE.

As I touched on earlier there is around 20 billion or more barrels still to be recovered and the UK Government places a huge amount of importance on the industry and its future. We are committed to working with the oil and gas sector to create the right conditions to maximise opportunity and investment that will benefit the UK. To show our commitment, earlier this year we launched the oil and gas strategy and as you would expect safety was one of the first topics covered. The strategy’s goal is to ensure that the objectives of Government and Industry are aligned and compatible.

We want to make sure that we maximise recovery from the UKCS which will in turn support our well established supply chain and continue to provide many jobs for years to come. An ambassadors group, which will be chaired by Charles Hendry MP, has been set up and will aim to bring a benefit in terms of competitiveness and reputation for the supply chain, both at home and internationally.

As Energy Minister, I am resolute on the importance of safety for our esteemed offshore workforce and myself and the department will always treat it as a priority. We should remember the other people who have died as a result of tragic offshore incidents. These include the worst helicopter accident back in 1986 when 45 men died in the Chinook disaster just a couple of miles from Shetland and the most recent incident in 2009 which resulted in 16 workers losing their lives when the helicopter crashed near Peterhead while returning from the Miller platform.

It is also important however to recognise the improvements in procedures and exceptional competence of our pilots which saved the lives of 33 men when in 2012 two super puma helicopters ditched and all personnel on board were recovered safely. These incidents serve as a constant reminder of the need for continuous improvement, and this is why we have safety steering groups working hard to minimise risk.

I would like to finish tonight by remembering and paying respect to those who lost their lives on 6th July 1988. Only by remembering the past, can safety in the future be assured.

Published 3 July 2013