Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Sakhalin oil workers swept away

Only a few weeks ago, on 18th December last year, the Kolskaya oil rig capsized in a fierce storm, in temperatures of -17C , some 200 kilometres off Sakhalin island. The oil rig was being towed, by an icebreaker and a two boat, back to the island, which is to the east of Russia in the Sea of Okhotsk, after completing a drilling mission. Rescue efforts were hampered by the strong winds and waves up to 4 metres high, and the search was called off as night fell. Fourteen people were rescued alive, at least four people died, and there were fears for 63 other people in board, as the rig might have overturned before they were able to escape on to life rafts. 

The Sakhalin accident happened as the rig was being towed from the eastern peninsula of Kamchatka to Sakhalin by an icebreaker and a tug. The transportation ministry stated that the platform started sinking after it was hit by a strong wave, which broke some equipment and portholes in the crew's dining room. The lifeboats were washed away by a 5 metre wave.


Map of Sakhalin


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When in first happened, the accident was reported by the BBC. Briefly, it was mentioned on the news bulletins every hour. But after the sinking of the oil rig, with lives in the balance, and an inevitably higher death toll with people missing in the harsh seas with little chance of rescue, there was no more news. Russia Today reported that the day after the accident, 19th December, rescuers found the four lifeboats, but they were all empty. Built in 1985, the Kolskaya rig was one of the largest oil rigs used in Russia, 70 metres long and 80 metres wide. The storm, with winds of 70 kilometers per hour waves up to six metres high, had damaged two of the air tanks, which gave buoyancy to the platform, causing the rig to tip over. A news station in Murmansk reported that the crew's captain and safety officer had tried to persuade their superiors to postpone the operation to avoid the powerful storm, but to no avail.

There is a sharp contrast between the sparse media coverage of this accident at sea and the giant Costa Concordia cruise ship which hit rocks off the Italy, with 4,000 people on board. At the time of writing the number of people known to have died is 17 and there is no hope of finding the 15 people who remain unaccounted for alive. Not so many people were affected by the Sakhalin accident, but there was a prolonged, agonising search, and a higher death toll. But Sakhalin is in a remote location which the global media rarely report on. More scrutiny by the world’s mainstream media would help improve the safety of offshore drilling.

By 22nd December, six more bodies were recovered from the Sea of Okhotsk, the known death toll had risen to 17, and 36 people were still missing. The oil rig had sunk in just 20 minutes. Investigation of the accident was underway, and a breach of safety regulations was suspected. On that day, the active search was called off  because of a cyclone in the area, and because all hope of finding further survivors had been lost. So the total death toll at Sakhalin was 53 people. There were more fatalities than the May 2010 explosion of the BP operated Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, which killed 11 workers.

The BBC did not give any background information about the immensity and strategic importance of the Sakhalin oil project. This might be partially due to the extraordinary remote geography. The island is to the north of Japan, seven time zones and a nine hour flight from Moscow. Temperatures can plummet as low as -40°C. On the other hand, the BBC, and many TV channels, are currently obsessed with everything ‘extreme’ - ice road truckers and pilots, celebrities and wannabee celebs surviving in the jungle with nothign but insects and a camera crew to sustain them, Arctic communities, wildlife in polar regions and deep under the oceans. We get programmes about the wonder of the environment, and the risks from the damaging of fossil fuel driven industrial activity in particular climate change. There was even an episode of the series Frozen Planet, presented by David Attenborough, about the climate change threat to the wildlife and indigenous communities in frozen polar regions, (though the series is to be aired in the US, by Discovery and other channels without this episode). But we see little of the infrastructure which causes the environmental damage.

So here’s some background on the Sakhalin oil project, one of the biggest and most technically challenging in the world. It’s part of this era of extreme oil, the endgame of the oil age as we struggle to extract more inaccessible deposits. More technology and more energy is used to over-ride the constraints of difficult terrain to extract the depleting supplies of oil which remain - ever deeper under the oceans, encroaching further into Arctic and Antarctic regions, and low grade supplies such as tar sands and shale gas.

 
The Sakhalin oilfields were discovered in the 1970s but not exploited until recently because offshore and covered in a sheet of ice up to 2 metres thick for six long winter months each year. The oil could not be accessed until the advent of more powerful drilling technologies in the 1990s. 

Logistics firm Panalpina was involved in the early years of the Sakhalin project. In their magazine from 2003, Issue 1 when the project was launched. It is rare to find such detailed information from even a few years ago on the internet, in web years, 2003 is practically pre-historic. The magazine cover image shows the beauty of the strip of island, mountainous and heavily forested. But it’s a brutal environment for human habitation, one of the harshest outposts in the entire Russian empire. It used to be a prison camp. Playwright Anton Chekhov visited the island in 1890, when it accommodated 10,000 convicts and exiles, and described it as ‘hellish’ and ‘the most depressing place in our land I have been’.

Panalpina played a major role in delivering equipment, by sea and air, for the Sakhalin oil drilling consortium, which was formed in 1995, by Exxon-Mobil, Shell and a range of other companies from Japan, the US, the UK, Netherlands and India. Sakhalin lives up to Panalpina’s description as a ‘gargantuan logistics’ project’. In 2002, more than 135,000 tonnes of equipment was delivered, including what was, at the time, the world’s largest oil rig. It was from Texas, and the power of the sea delayed landing the rig on the beach for two weeks. Air charters flew in smaller items of equipment from Seoul, Vladivostok and Luxemburg.

Exxon-Mobil reported that Sakhalin-1 commenced production in 2005, following 36 million worker hours of construction, the largest foreign direct investment in Russia. The project established Russia as key oil and gas supplier to Asia.

That was just Sakhalin-1. By 2006 Sakahlin-2 was taking shape. Business Week describes the ‘immense new landmarks’ rising through the mists as Sakhain-2 was constructed - drilling platforms, pipelines, liquid natural gas, (LNG) facilities. Sakhalin-2 taps into oil and gas beneath three platforms off the northeast coast of the island, to be pumped 800 kilometres along pipelines to the southern tip of the island, onwards in tankers to Japan, South Korea, China, Mexico and the west coast of the US. All the equipment had to be imported, including oil platforms built in Korea and towed across the Sea of Japan. Platforms are heavily reinforced against ice floes and earthquakes, as the area is seismically active. Two pipelines, one for gas, one for oil, run through rugged mountain terrain, crossed 1,000 rivers and streams. The environmental risk to salmon fishing led to protests by indigenous people. Sakhalin Environment Watch has documented the environmental risks, legal issues - including a catalogue of violations, and financing which has relied on IFIs (International Finance Institutions) including the EBRD (European Bank for Reconstruction and Development).

By the beginning of 2011, the Sakhalin-1 project had exported approximately 300 million barrels of oil to world markets. In January, Popular Science reported that the world’s biggest and deepest ‘extended reach oil well’ had been drilled. This entailed drilling 12.4 kilometres down into the ground onshore and 11.4 kilometres outwards beneath the ocean floor. In fact, since the beginning of the Sakhalin in 2003, the project has boasted seven out of ten of the largest oil wells on the planet. The seven-storey oil rig nicknamed Yastreb, which translates as ‘The Hawk’, is the most powerful in the world, equipped with six generators, and the drill torque (the rotating pressure) is 444,300 kilogrammes per square metre. The rig has two walls, built to withstand the cold and earthquakes. The crew anticipated that more records would be broken in the coming months, but the year ended with the tragic accident.

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