London — The UK's North Sea oil and gas industry is facing difficulties with its supply chain, likely maintenance deferrals and problems ferrying workers to and from facilities due to the coronavirus threat, a senior figure at industry body Oil & Gas UK said Thursday, as the widening pandemic cast a shadow over Europe's key offshore oil and gas region.
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In a briefing with journalists, OGUK health and safety director Trevor Stapleton said problems were already emerging in sourcing vital equipment such as valves from Italy, due to a nationwide shutdown there to combat the coronavirus outbreak. He said non-critical maintenance could be delayed until next year, potentially including the three-week shutdown of the Forties Pipeline System scheduled to start June 16.
Stapleton said cases of infection offshore would not necessarily mean production having to shut down, but there were certain critical roles at oil and gas facilities, and contingency planning was underway throughout the industry.
The UK produces over 1 million b/d of crude oil and meets a substantial proportion of its gas needs from the North Sea. On Thursday, OGUK issued a notice toughening curbs on who could travel offshore to include anyone who has recently been in a country listed as "Category 2" by the government, which covers most of East and Southeast Asia.
So far, Norway has confirmed its first case of coronavirus in an offshore worker, while in the UK industry, a suspected case was announced on Wednesday at the Mariner field.
Stapleton noted a particular issue with helicopter flights to and from offshore oil and gas facilities, which are generally relied on for transporting sick workers, and for changes of the "crew" that run such facilities. He said OGUK was hopeful of negotiating new arrangements to allow transportation of workers infected with coronavirus, but helicopter providers were currently refusing to do so. Emergency rescue flights are available for life-threatening situations and all platforms have on-board medics, he added.
"If we do have a confirmed case, at the moment the helicopter operators won't from a commercial transport point of view go to that affected installation. We think we're close to getting a solution such that we could remove someone that has been confirmed back on shore for appropriate treatment," Stapleton said.
"That still doesn't address the situation of so now we have a platform that has had a confirmed case," he said, adding talks were underway with the Scottish health authority on what to do once an installation has had a confirmed case of coronavirus.
"We're working hard with Health Protection Scotland to develop a protocol. ... We're waiting for them to develop a protocol," he said.
Stapleton said that without flights offshore, installations could continue operating for a period, provided critical personnel remained healthy, such as the installation manager or their deputies, but also roles such as crane operators needed to lift supplies brought by marine vessels. "The crews that would be offshore at the time would carry on working. Installations would still be able to continue to operate," he said.
MAINTENANCE DELAYS LIKELY
On the issue of maintenance, Stapleton said there could well be delays. The UK's Forties pipeline system, a crucial oil transportation artery, is currently due for a major three-week shutdown for upgrade work from June 16. So far, the operator, Switzerland-based Ineos, has said it has no plans to defer the work.
"There are some problems already," Stapleton said. "A lot of equipment is coming from Italy, valves and things. It's recognized that this could be an issue, so that's being looked at as of today going forward, and working with the operators and the likes of Forties Pipeline System as well, to say what is clearly essential activities that we need to do, and maybe what are some of the things now that we could postpone to next year."
Stapleton added that the industry was looking at trying to arrange preferential processing of coronavirus test results on the grounds of it being classified as critical infrastructure. He said the regulator, the Oil & Gas Authority, was also looking to safeguard critical onshore installations such as processing plants and terminals.