Another Petrobras rig worker dies and no sign of legislation to adequately regulate NZ deep sea oil drilling

30 12 2011

Petrobras Duque de Caxias oil refinery, Rio de Janeiro

Gisborne District Councillor Manu Caddie has renewed his call for the government to suspend the East Coast exploration permit for Brazilian energy giant Petrobras following another death on a rig operated by the company.

Mr Caddie says the idea that Petrobras has a good safety record is a myth.

“The government and big oil lobbyists in New Zealand have claimed Petrobras is one of the safest oil companies in the world. The list of incidents involving Petrobras over 2011 must see it come close to being one the most dangerous employers and polluters on the planet.”

Mr Caddie says the death of another Petrobras employee and injury of two others in a Boxing Day accident on the PUB-03 oil rig in offshore waters in Rio Grande do Norte state, northeast Brazil and another fire on the same day at its Duque de Caxias oil refinery in Rio de Janeiro are just the latest in a series of deadly incidents and accidents earlier in the year.

The refinery is already the subject of a criminal investigation launched by the Federal Police Department of Environment and Heritage after tests carried out by technicians from the State Environmental Institute (INEA) and the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro (PUC-RJ) on a nearby river found high levels of pollutants during December 2010 and in August of this year. A spokesperson for the Police said the material dumped in the river violated the limits set by environmental law.

A major incident in the Gulf of Mexico in March involved a deep sea riser coming loose with a 130 tonne buoy narrowly missing another rig as the company prepared to start the first new extraction since the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Had the break happened a few days later when oil had started pumping, analysts claim it could have resulted in a disaster similar to the BP oil leak last year.

In August a Petrobras worker was killed and his colleague badly disfigured from a refinery explosion in Argentina that was similar to another fatal accident two years earlier.

In early November a spill from a project co-owned by Petrobras and Chevron spewed 3,000 barrels of oil into the sea and took a week to get under control. Local government authorities have taken a civil lawsuit against the polluters claiming US$11billion in damages.

“Petrobras is not a model corporate citizen and the new Minister of Energy and Resources should not be allowing it to operate in New Zealand waters” said Mr Caddie.

“Under the draft EEZ legislation hurriedly introduced to Parliament, local authorities have no role in decision-making about proposed offshore drilling and can only make a submission within the short timeframe like everyone else” said Mr Caddie.

“While the politicians and industry have been claiming that New Zealand deep sea drilling will be based on ‘international best practice’ and robust regulations, the draft bill that is supposed to reassure the public and establish adequate safeguards for people and the marine environment contains absolutely no specifics on safety standards, environmental protection or drilling practices.”

An article in the Washington Post earlier this month quoted engineers worried about the risks of a technology still being tested. Ricardo Cabral de Azevedo, a petroleum reservoir engineer at the University of Sao Paulo who has done research for oil companies in the US, said the industry is worried about the ultimate fail-safe: the blowout preventer, a complex device that slices through pipe to instantly cap a well in a disaster.

At BP’s Macondo field, the BOP, as it is known in the industry, suffered compound failures. Azevedo said companies may be pushing the bounds of technology by going deeper than 2,500m or more of water (as is the case in parts of the Raukumara Basin). “It is a problem because all the equipment has to go to higher pressure, and higher pressure may cause failure,” Azevedo said of the BOP. “We really don’t know if it will function.”

“So we have dodgy companies operating under dodgy regulations using dodgy technology in a dodgy environment – what makes us think New Zealand will be immune from the kind of disasters that are increasingly common under such conditions?” said Mr Caddie.

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