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Piper Alpha Case Study

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This research report is about the Piper Alpha Disaster that happened in 1988. Being one of the major oil production oil-rig in the UK, the accident that took place more than 20 years ago caught the attention of many, especially those in the field. The happening was largely due to the complacency of the supervisors as well as the safety measures of the management. Using the internet, academic journals and textbooks available, the research was conducted by referring to various sources of information regarding the incident. After the explosion there are many new prevention steps taken in this field of industry as well as new managing system of the offshore regulatory control.

1. Introduction

1.1 Background

The Piper Alpha was a North Sea oil production platform operated by Occidental Petroleum (Caledonia) Ltd. It accounted for around ten per cent of the oil and gas production from North Sea at the time. Located about 120 miles north-east of Aberdeen, The platform began production in 1976 first as an oil platform and then later converted to gas production (Drysdale & Slyvester-Evans, 1998).

For safety reasons, the modules were organized such that the most dangerous operations were distant from personnel areas such as the accommodation deck, but still this still one of the worst offshore oil disaster to date.

1.2 The Happening

The disaster began with a routine maintenance procedure. On the morning of the 6th of July 1988, a certain backup propane condensate pump in the processing area needed to have its pressure safety valve checked (Drysdale & Slyvester-Evans, 1998). The work could not be completed by 1800 and the workers asked for and received permission to leave the rest of the work until the next day.

Later in the evening during the next work shift, the primary condensate pump failed. None of those present were aware that a vital part of the machine had been removed and decided to start the backup pump. Gas products escaped from the hole left by the valve. Gas audibly leaked out at high pressure, ignited and exploded, blowing through the firewalls. The fire spread through the damaged firewalls, destroyed some oil lines and soon large quantities of stored oil were burning out of control. About twenty minutes after the initial explosion, at 2220, the fire had spread and become hot enough to weaken and then burst the gas risers from the other platforms.

Many jump out of windows into the sea hoping to be picked up by safe boats but only 67 were saved in this fashion. 167 out of 229 people on board were killed, mostly died suffocated on carbon monoxide and fumes in the accommodation area. The generation and utilities module, which included the fireproofed accommodation block, slipped into the sea. The largest part of the platform followed it. The whole accident took place in 22 minutes.

1.3 Purpose of the Report

The purpose of this research is to examine the objectives and structure of the management of the Piper Alpha platform in the North Sea, UK. The operation and industrial processes of the platform will be carefully evaluated and to spot the risk or any areas overlooked that contributed to the accident. To identify the consequences of the accident (e.g. damage and costs) and the improvements in the management systems to prevent such disaster from happening again.

2. Management and Operation

2.1 Piper Field Oil Platform

The Piper Alpha oil production platform was a North Sea oil production platform in the United Kingdom operated by Occidental Petroleum Ltd. It began production in 1976 until 1988 where the disaster sinked the whole platform into the sea. First the Piper Alpha platform functions as an oil platform and then later converted into gas production.

2.1.1 Management

Four companies that later transformed into the OPCAL joint venture to obtain an oil exploration license in 1972 that lead them to discover the Piper oil field located north of England, beside Scotland. At the time of the disaster the Piper Oil field was accounted for approximately ten percent of the North Sea oil and gas production.

The offshore oil and gas was a very new industry introduced to the United Kingdom very briefly 30 years ago. The naïve government was seduced by the very promising reward of the industry, knowing that it'll be high risk. The management disregarded adherence to certain safety rules. There were regulations, but enforcement was not there. The nation and corporate pride rendered everything in disaster.

2.1.2 Structure and Function

A large fixed platform, Piper Alpha was situated on the Piper oilfield, approximately 120 miles (193 km) northeast of Aberdeen in 474 feet (144 m) of water, and comprised four modules separated by firewalls. The platform was constructed by McDermott Engineering at Ardersier and UIE at Cherbourg, with the sections united at Ardersier before tow out during 1975, with production commencing in late 1976 (Drysdale & Slyvester-Evans, 1998).

The west and east elevation of the topsides of the Piper Alpha platform are as shown in figures 2 and 3. Module A, the wellhead module was considered to be the most hazardous were arranged so to provide a maximum separation with module D, which contain various utilities and also the accommodation deck above. Module comprises of 36 wellhead which is used to control the flow of hydrocarbons and water from the well.

Module B is the production where separation of oil and other fluids took place. From there, the oil will also be pumped into the main oil-line for transmission to Flotta. It contained the manifolds, test and main production seperators and the main oil line export pump. Module C contains the gas compression equipment whereby gas from the production seperators will be compressed for export ashore via the main oil line. In the early 1980's, a gas conservation module had been installed at the 107' level but at the time of the disaster this module was under maintenance and therefore gas was compressed and processed only in module C.

2.2 Objectives of the Management

Consider the situation prevailing in the North Sea ten minutes prior to the incident, the standard operating climate



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