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Shell faces more North Sea COVID-19 disruption as industry urges rules easing


Nearly 120 Shearwater workers being evacuated

Shearwater revamp had been due on stream in 2020

Oil & Gas UK seeks easing of COVID-19 isolation regime

  • Author
  • Nick Coleman
  • Editor
  • Daniel Lalor
  • Commodity
  • Natural Gas Oil Petrochemicals

Shell continues to experience COVID-19 disruption at one of its main North Sea development projects, the revamp of the Shearwater gas and condensate hub, with evacuation plans underway for 20 people tested positive and a further 98 close contacts, a source close to the situation said July 13.

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Separately, industry group Oil & Gas UK said it was seeking a relaxation of rules on self-isolation for offshore workers deemed to have been in close contact with those tested positive for COVID-19, in order to ensure the efficiency of operations, while continuing to prioritize health and safety.

Shell's Shearwater project, intended to incorporate new fields and redirect gas flows to St Fergus on the Scottish coast and nearby petrochemical facilities, has been buffeted by a coronavirus upsurge since late June that threatens to delay completion of a current shutdown of the facility, due for completion mid- to late July.

The overall Shearwater project was already delayed by the pandemic, with startup originally scheduled for 2020.

The Shearwater area fields, along with TotalEnergies' nearby Elgin-Franklin complex, are predominantly gas, but send significant volumes of light oil or condensate through the UK's main crude artery, the Forties pipeline.

A section of the Forties route that handles oil from Elgin-Franklin and Shearwater is currently shutdown for a protracted maintenance overhaul.

Regarding the latest infection situation at Shearwater, the source close to the situation said all those concerned "have been flown to shore, or are isolating while waiting to return to shore". Shell did not comment.

The UK's North Sea oil and gas industry typically produces around 1 million b/d of oil, or around 1% of the global market, while meeting about half the country's gas needs.

However, the problems for Shell come as UK oil and gas output has plunged due to operators catching up on maintenance and development work postponed from 2020 due to the pandemic.

Infection concerns have abated, partly, the industry says, due to strict COVID-19 testing and protocols, and offshore workforce numbers are now significantly higher than last year -- at 10,678 for the week commencing June 28, according to Oil & Gas UK.

Rules relaxation

Echoing some other industries, Oil & Gas UK said July 13 it was seeking an easing of rules on self-isolation for those who have come into close contact with people infected with COVID-19, to reflect the reduced health risk resulting from widespread vaccination.

"We share the concern felt by our members across the industry with these rising number of cases offshore and it is reasonable to assume that what we are witnessing today reflects to some extent the rise in cases across the UK as restrictions ease," OGUK safety and environment director Trevor Stapleton told S&P Global Platts in emailed comments.

"We continue to work with industry, the Health & Safety Executive and Public Health Scotland to minimize the impact of the inevitable rise in COVID numbers, as numbers offshore return to pre-pandemic levels. A key lever in this regard will be the relaxation of rules governing those individuals who have been fully vaccinated and who are currently being identified as a close contact of someone who has tested positive for COVID. Like many other sectors, such as the NHS and hospitality, our industry requires this flexibility to maintain efficient operations and we urge government to address this matter as soon as is reasonably practicable."

"The health and safety of our workforce remains our primary concern and to limit the risk of COVID-19 transmission, we continue to urge colleagues to remain vigilant, maintain social distancing wherever possible and continue to practice the highest standards of personal hygiene."