Steels are sagging, valves sticking, fillers over-filling, pipes leaking,
gauges sticking. Safety procedures fail. Alert systems remain stubbornly
It shouldn't be this way. Every Chief Executive will tell you that
their company’s number one priority is safety. Building and planning
regulations have succeeded in minimizing fire hazards. Risk assessments
inform every conceivable area of health and safety at work and play. Yet
right now our energy industry infrastructure is suffering a series of
catastrophic shocks that is starting to look unstoppable.
Some of these disasters are baffling, not least because they are happening
at a time of soaring prices and massive oil wealth - a time when the pressure
to cut corners ought to be minimal. Take the investigation into the ‘UK’s
biggest peace time explosion’, the Buncefield explosion of December
2005. Investigators are unable to explain why the greatest blast damage
to buildings was in the vicinity of the nearby open air car parks. The
report states that ‘The magnitude of the overpressures generated
in the open areas of the … car parks is not consistent with current
understanding of vapour cloud explosions'. This assertion sheds doubt
on the validity of the reports own reading of events*1.
In New York in February 2003, residents were woken up 30 miles away
by a massive blast at the oil and gas facility on Staten Island*2.
An explosion at the Ghislenghien plant in Belgium in July 2004 'sent huge
fireballs into the air, flung bodies hundreds of yards, burned two factories
and left a large crater between them'*3.
The Texas City refinery blast, where 14 people died in March 2005, was
punctuated by a ‘sonic boom’ and ‘The aftermath of the
blast left a gaping hole in the earth, while chunks of charred metal littered
the ground’*4. Then the explosion on
Rough off the Yorkshire coast in February 2006 was so damaging that the
gas storage facility was shut down for 3 months*5.
Though barely reported, this presented the most serious threat to the
UK’s winter gas supplies in a very long time. Local authorities
in England were warned to prepare for shortages. But the shocks continued.
Pipeline corrosion in March 2006 allowed some 267,000 gallons of oil to
spill out onto the Alaskan ice*6. The blast
from the chemical works at Billingham on Teeside in May 2006 was heard
20 miles away*7. Then, on 7 August 2006,
the temporary closure of the Prudhoe Bay oil facility was announced. Due
to rust. In response, oil prices in London climbed to record highs of
$78 per barrel*8.
Old age? Corrosion – networks and facilities allowed to fall
into disrepair? Is this the obvious conclusion to draw from this accelerating
sequence of energy industry shocks? Or, is there enough evidence here
to suggest a pattern
– a series of rude awakenings?