Buncefield Incident Revisited

Anyone remember the explosion at the Buncefield fuel depot in December 2005?  At the time I wrote this:

Being a risk engineer in the oil and gas business and all that, here’s my take on it: the root cause is a human error (most probably someone not following procedures) made during a non-routine operation (most probably maintenance). In short, somebody did something he was not supposed to when trying to fix something. Let’s see if I’m right.

Let’s see indeed.  A colleague has pointed out that the final report of the incident has now been published.  So was I right?


It seems the root cause was faulty instrumentation and controls causing the overfilling of a tank during normal, routine operations.  This is pretty unusual. The reason I stated what I did with some confidence is that the vast majority of oil and gas incidents happen during non-routine maintenance, the Piper Alpha disaster having been the most deadly.

So much for my expert analysis.  I’ll stick to throwing rocks over the side of ships.

10 Days At Sea

I am now back in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk having survived 10 days or so on the Yuri Topchev.  I must start this post by apologising for the lack of photos: I might be able to get some from colleagues, but I didn’t bring a camera out with me, the main reason being that taking photos around live oil and gas facilities is seriously frowned upon for safety reasons, and it wasn’t until I was out on the ship that I realised I was missing out on some superb photography, far outside any danger zone.  I did take some pictures when I was on the Lun-A though, which I have been too idle to post.  I will do so shortly.

The Yuri Topchev is a 100m long icebreaking supply vessel, a photo of which can be seen below in the Sakhalin port of Kholmsk.

Yuri Topchev

It was built in Norway a little over two years ago, and for the large part is a lovely ship: the standard of finishing in the cabins, bridge, and walkways is top class.  Unfortunately, the owners hit hard times at about 90% completion and they ended up skimping on a few essentials which would have made her a world-class vessel.  As such, it has second-rate navigational electronics and an enormous winch which takes up a quarter of the hangar-deck and – because a relatively minor complementary part was axed from the scope – is utterly useless.

Since its completion, the ship had not really done any work, and appeared to be brand new.  Unfortunately, nor had a lot of the crew.  As soon as I arrived on board, I discovered that they had not filled up with nearly enough food or potable water for the number of crew and length of trip.  All we had to drink was gassified bottled water, kvas, kompot, and tea and coffee.  Then the coffee ran out, then the UHT milk ran out (fresh milk is rare onshore Sakhalin, never mind offshore) and we were onto powdered milk mixed in a jug.  I hadn’t seen powdered milk since the 1980s, and I discovered it’s taste hadn’t improved any in the interim.  Then that ran out and we were onto cans of condensed milk.  We ended up scrounging milk and coffee from one of the platforms we passed.  The ship had left port only about 3 weeks before I got on board.  Good job Russians weren’t in charge of supplies on the Mayflower.  Food consisted of pelmenii, varenikii, pre-cooked sausages in boiling water, and a seemingly endless supply of cold-cut salami and cheese.  A middle-aged Russian lady did most of the cooking and did a great job considering what she had to work with.  The head chef, a Russian man decked out in full cook’s regalia, appeared to do nothing more than stir the pot of pre-cooked sausages in boiling water.  Fruit, salad, juice, and desserts were as absent as they were in a 1990s McDonalds.  Eventually, two days before we arrived back into port, a container of food was craned onto our deck, which turned out to hold what looked to me like about twelve tonnes of potatoes and cabbage.  After that, the food did improve somewhat, but the Safe Astoria it was not.

I’d not really been on a ship before, and I found it all rather interesting.  Unlike on the St. Petersburg pleasure cruisers or the Singapore-Bintan Island ferry which have signs everywhere keeping passengers out of all the interesting areas, I was free to wander around the Yuri Topchev and talk to the crew, with the exception of the engine room out of which I got chased by a rather grumpy Chief Engineer when he caught me looking as though I was about to meddle with someting (I was).  As such, I spent a lot of time up on the bridge in one of the five driver’s seats (I’m sure that’s not the nautically correct term) first looking at all the controls, then waving my finger gingerly near the controls, and eventually fiddling with the controls.  I limited myself to the radar display, which explains why the Yuri Topchev was not lost with all hands.  During my wanderings, I noticed with some interest that there was a room marked “Survivors” and another, just along the corridor, marked “Deceased”.  The latter was locked, which made me wonder what was in there and made me look a bit closer at the fatty soup we were being served for dinner.

The ship was registered in Murmansk which served as its home port, and most of the crew were from the same place.  The Captain was a chain smoker in the strongest sense of the term, puffing his way through a packet of cigarettes every two hours or so.  He wasn’t the most confident of captains, and seemed to panic when asked to do anything other than drive his boat in a forward direction, and when asked to hold the ship in a certain position or align it in a fixed direction he’d wave his arms and moan about the strength of the currents, the wind, the alignment of the stars.  Everything was all a bit too difficult.  Aeroflot pilots are reknowned for their bravado in landing their aircraft in the most appalling of conditions; their counterparts on the water don’t seem to be made of the same stuff.  At one point he said it was much too difficult to follow in the ice-free wake of an icebreaker leading in front of us, and raised all sorts of objections as to why it couldn’t be done.  I went to bed as the argument was in full flow, and woke in the morning to find a deckhand – the lowest ranked man on the ship, who the day before had been sweeping snow off the deck – at the helm doing a fine job.

On the other hand, the Chief Mate was a chap called Oleg, aged 34 with a tattoo on his upper arm of a bear bursting between the Russian flag and the saltire of the Russian navy over a ship on the high seas.  He was very obliging, highly competent, and seemed to present his ideas before the Captain who quickly adopted them and issued them as his own orders, much to the amusement of all who had figured out what was going on.  I got on pretty well with Oleg, and he told me a whole load of stuff about ships, the Russian Arctic, and showed me a few dozen pictures of Murmansk and the areas around it.  He had attended a maritime academy in Murmansk and was continuing his studies in the hope that in 3 or 4 years he would make captain.  I hope he does.  Maybe we’ll bump into each other again on the Shtokman project?  Or at Yamal?

The rest of the crew were pretty good, and with one or two exceptions all willing to do some work.  The Bosun was an older chap called Vladimir who sported a neatly trimmed white beard around the bottom of his chin and up the rear of his jawline which made him look like he’d stepped off the set of Planet of the Apes.  For a bosun, it was a good look.  And the toughest man on the ship was a Russian with a round, pock-marked face who would stand on the deck at 3:00am in -18C with a howling wind, his face uncovered, with all the concern of standing on the beach at Yalta in July.

Incidentally, before I came on board I’d always assumed that normal attire for a ship’s crew included items such as heavy knitted polo-neck sweaters, woollen hats, and welly boots.  As it turns out, shell-suit bottoms, flip-flops, and an old vest do just fine. 

So what was I actually doing on the ship?  I was clearing the moon-pool of ice, lowering and raising the ROV cage, deploying and recovering the sonar beacon, supervising rigging, lowering and raising the USBL pole, conducting tool-box talks, manhandling acoustic shackles.

Still with me?

Transmitting ultrasonic signals, securing hatches, pressurising the moon-pool, making vents air-tight, and raising and lowering a clump-weight.  In English, I was supervising a group of Russians whose enthusiasm often took the form of suicide and it was my job to talk them out of it.  And I occasionally had the task of asking nearby icebreakers if they wouldn’t mind awfully smashing up some ice for us while we worked.  A 4,400 tonne, 91m long supply vessel performing 360 degree handbrake turns in under 20 seconds is worth watching.

So after 10 days at sea we arrived back in the port of Kholmsk on Christmas eve, in time for me to get back to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk for Christmas day and join a group of friends in devouring a whole pile of turkey dinner.  We’d had a 44-hour voyage to port from the Lun-A platform which took us around the southern tip of the island within a short distance of Japan and close to areas of Sakhalin which are hard to reach by car.  Most disappointingly the weather was awful and you could barely see the prow of the ship through the swirling snow, and when the weather cleared up a bit it was night.  But I had spent a few hours here and there watching the ship plough through the ice leaving a perfectly straight channel of dark water behind us, and looking out over the lily-pads of ice which had all fused together in a patchwork, and the sun rising and setting over the ice sheet, and it was at times well worth being there (frustrations over my not having brought a camera notwithstanding).  Almost worth having to stand on deck in freezing wind with ice forming from my breath inside my balaclava trying to avoid a swinging basket filled with rock and coated with a thick layer of ice from being dipped in the freezing seas over and over again.

I Dump. I Rock.

This evening I will be heading north up the island on the train to Nogliki, where tomorrow (weather permitting) I will be taken by helicopter to what was for a short time my home, the Lun-A gas production and drilling platform.  I will be on there a matter of minutes before being hoiked in the air on a frog and plonked on the deck of the supply vessel Yuri Topchev where hopefully I will be met by a crew member who will not wonder who I am or why I am there.  With luck, he will have organised a hammock for me.

All things going well I will be on the tub for a week, possibly heading north through ever icier seas to the Piltun-B platform, to assist with rock dumping around a subsea pipeline.  Rock dumping consists of dumping rock on the sea bed to protect a pipeline, or to give it support where it spans a trench.  And there were you thinking it was what happens to a groupie the morning after a concert!  Apparently they already have rock on the boat so I don’t need to hand-carry any out on the helicopter, but they have given me two replacement batteries for something or other to take out with me.  Having picked them up, I think I’d have preferred to take rocks.

I have packed a thick rope made from marine-grade hemp in case of emergency.  Not on the boat mind you, I’m talking about if the weather gets bad and I end up stuck in the transit camp in Nogliki for a few days.  Coupled with a sturdy beam (which admittedly would be hard to find in the Nogliki transit camp), my rope could prove to be a preferable option.

I’ll see you all in a week or so.  Allow two days for thawing.  It’s gonna be freezing out there.

Prospects Improved

Just over a month ago I speculated in this post that the supermajor’s prospects in Russia may improve as a result of the global economic crisis, as financing mega projects becomes much more difficult in the months and years ahead.

Sure enough:

Gazprom executive chairman Alexei Miller has given a ray of hope to foreign companies by saying this week that they may be able to work on building LNG plants on the remote Yamal peninsula in West Siberia.

The Russian gas monopoly is struggling with rapidly falling output at its core assets in the nearby Yamal-Nenets region.

Today, Gazprom expects to transport gas from Yamal peninsula fields by pipelines. However, if the decision to opt for an LNG plant is approved, then the company will speed up the development of the Tambei group of fields, Miller said.

Gazprom expects the Tambei fields to be tapped sometime in 2020 if the pipeline solution is adopted. However, Gazprom officials indicated earlier that they had been in preliminary contact with Anglo-Dutch supermajor Shell and Spain´s Repsol regarding the possibility of building an LNG plant at the South Tambeiskoye gas field.

As well as Shell and Repsol, Gazprom is considering other major players as possible partners for LNG solutions.

“The list of possible participants is currently being made, but we are not ruling out majors such as ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips from joining the project,”Gazprom deputy chairman Alexander Medvedev said.

Actually, I have no idea whether this is a result of the financial crisis, but I expect that the current turmoil has sharpened minds a little as to how Russia’s grand plans are going to be funded.  By inviting in the western oil companies as partners, the project owners gain access to their technical expertise and large piles of cash.

Miller said that Gazprom will keep full ownership of fields on Yamal and will only allow foreign companies as minority shareholders in future operating companies similar to the first phase of the Shtokman gas development project in the Barents Sea.

This is pretty much how it works in the Middle East: the national oil companies own the development, the foreign companies supply the expertise and the cash.  Might we see the employees of the western oil giants stomping around frozen oilfields for the next decade or so?

Maybe there’s a lengthy career in Russia for me yet?

Albeit on the Yamal Peninsular.  That’ll have my wife jumping for joy.


I spent the first two weeks of November lying on the White Beach of Boracay, Philippines doing precisely nothing, an activity which included ignoring all news and not reading as much as a single website.  It is something I should do far more often.

Catching up on who has said and done what in the world, two things caught my eye.

The first was Medvedev blaming the US for the global economic crisis in his State of the Union Address:

I think the concept that their own world view is solely true and incontestable, which emerged after the fall of the Soviet Union, ultimately led the U.S. to major economic blunders. By inflating the financial bubble to stimulate its own growth, the U.S. not only neglected coordinating its decisions with other members of global markets, but also forewent an elementary sense of moderation. They refused to heed the numerous warnings of their partners — Russia included by the way. Consequently, they inflicted harm on both themselves and others.

Russia complaining that the US is responsible for hardships at home – even those yet to be properly felt – is nothing new, but complaining that the collapse of the US economy is to blame for economic woes in Russia reminded me of this post.

The second was this:

In a letter to his Ukrainian counterpart Viktor Yushchenko, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has denounced what he calls Ukraine’s attempts at revising history. He accuses the political leadership in Kiev of exploiting the great famine of the 1930s, known as Holodomor, for political ends.
Medvedev said in his letter that ”the tragic events of the 1930s are being used in Ukraine in order to achieve instantaneous and conformist political goals.”

As if the Holodomor itself was not an attempt by the government in Moscow to achieve instantaneous and conformist political goals.