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North Sea oil and gas industry confident of coronavirus crisis regime

Highlights

Weak government response threatens industry's survival: RMT

Offshore operators able to sidestep virus guidelines

Offshore workforce reduced to 7,000 from 11,500 normally

London — North Sea industry group Oil & Gas UK said Thursday it was confident of maintaining production under a "minimum manning" regime designed to guard against coronavirus, but a leading trade unionist said workers were fearful and the government needed to step in to ensure the basin's survival.

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In a briefing with journalists, OGUK health and safety director Trevor Stapleton said the number of workers at UK offshore installations had been reduced to around 7,000 since the new regime kicked in last week, compared with normal levels of around 11,500, as all non-critical maintenance is postponed and operators focus on keeping facilities running at current production levels. UK oil production has reached around 1.1 million b/d in recent years, in a partial comeback for an industry synonymous with the Brent benchmark.

Offshore oil and gas workers are exempt from the general "lockdown" imposed in the UK to try to combat coronavirus. But the industry, which relies on remote and sometimes cramped platforms off Scotland's coast, faces a battle fending off a virus that has paralyzed Europe, while slashing its spending in the face of collapsing oil prices.

Switzerland-based Ineos this week postponed one of the largest maintenance projects to be undertaken in the North Sea in recent years, an upgrade of the Forties pipeline that would have involved thousands of extra workers.

Asked about the viability of "minimum manning" in the light of suspected cases of coronavirus at older platforms in the far north of the North Sea, Stapleton rejected the idea the regime might be untenable in some cases.

"I think this combination of minimum manning suitable to maintain safe operations, maintaining the separation that you need, is still very much possible regardless of the age of the installation," he said.

"Minimum manning continues to allow safe operations ... but we will just focus on safety-critical maintenance, and if necessary breakdown maintenance," Stapleton said.

He said the industry had established a screening regime for workers travelling offshore by helicopter involving taking their temperatures, and this enabled oil platform operators to avoid some social distancing measures imposed on the general population.

Helicopters are allowed to ferry workers fully laden, although some operators have reduced the number of workers carried, and numbers are reduced when a worker has had contact with someone thought to carry the virus, Stapleton said.

"Where necessary we will reduce the people on the helicopter to get that distancing from the air crew and one another, but at the moment if it's a standard crew change, we believe that we've got necessary controls in place," he said.

He said preventive measures were in place at offshore installations, such as giving workers individual cabins, staggering meal breaks and maintaining cleanliness.

NORTH SEA 'CORONACOPTER'

The UK has had no confirmed cases of coronavirus offshore so far, but this may reflect the fact that testing kits are not transported offshore. OGUK has been trying to negotiate with public health authorities to get priority testing of the workforce.

Several workers with suspected coronavirus have been evacuated aboard a designated "Coronacopter" following protocols developed during epidemics such as Ebola, Stapleton said. One was also taken ashore by a coastguard search and rescue helicopter on Wednesday, he said, while in some cases workers have been quarantined offshore.

Several suspected cases have been reported at installations in the far north of the North Sea that feed the Brent pipeline, including the Cormorant complex operated by the UAE's Taqa, and the Magnus field operated by London-listed EnQuest, although EnQuest declined to confirm the reports.

UNION UNEASE

However, the industry's response is not reassuring offshore workers, who remain worried about catching the virus and suspicious of a screening regime that relies merely on temperature checks, Jake Molloy, regional organiser for the National Union of Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT), told S&P Global Platts. Fear of being laid off means workers are likely to continue travelling offshore, and to "do things they probably shouldn't do," he said.

Molloy blamed the government for failing to provide "robust" guidance on protection against the virus and said workers were already being laid off pending implementation of a national job retention scheme announced by the government last week and intended to provide a basic wage.

In terms of the industry's resilience and ability to recover from the current crisis "this is not a good place to be," Molloy said. "The financial and health issues are inextricably linked. It's a mess of the government's making rather than the industry's making."

The coronavirus crisis "isn't going to last for ever and [Prime Minister] Boris Johnson does have a policy of maximizing production from the basin," he added.