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Wednesday, 9 September 2009
Page: 9172


Mr SHORTEN (Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities and Children’s Services and Parliamentary Secretary for Victorian Bushfire Reconstruction) (11:45 AM) —I rise to speak on the Offshore Petroleum and Greenhouse Gas Storage Legislation Amendment Bill 2009and a related bill, and in particular on the amendments that the government plans to introduce to allow quick and independent inquiries into operational incidents which occur in offshore petroleum facilities. These incidents can lead to disruptions in the supply of energy, to environmental damage and, most significantly for me, to injuries and deaths amongst offshore workers. These amendments will enable thorough investigation of incidents and allow governments, regulators and the oil and gas industry to learn why they happened and how they can be prevented.

This government has done more to deal with issues in terms of offshore petroleum health and safety than its predecessor. My old organisation, the Australian Workers Union, has been involved in the forefront of the fight for health and safety for their members, along with the right to a fair wage and the right to negotiate collectively. Its members, including current national secretary Paul Howes, Victorian secretary Cesar Melhem, Rod Currie, Terry Lee, John Clarence, Dave Healy, ‘Red’ Turner, George Parker, Dennis ‘Thomo’ Thomson, Yossi Berger, Colin Fisher, Jim Ward and Tony McDonald have all spent many years promoting the issue of better safety, which is being partly dealt with in these amendments.

I have seen the devastation and the irreplaceable loss that happens when a person in the prime of life does not return from a day at work. The grief of their family is endless. They will never let a day pass without asking, ‘What if?’ or ‘How could this be allowed to happen nowadays?’ Too often we have seen the technology and the expertise to create safer workplaces but what is lacking is the will. The fight to ensure that workers return home from their shifts on a rig with their health intact is one which relies on strong regulation and cooperation across all parts of the industry. I believe this bill will establish inquiries that will save lives. In Australia in recent times we have seen two incidents at least, the Varanus Island gas explosion in 2008 and the Montara oil field leak, that will require this kind of investigation. The recent joint executive inquiry into the Varanus Island gas explosion continues to be held up, I believe, by legal action. It is clear that the current model does not let us get a complete picture of the matters surrounding this incident.

The Varanus Island explosion thankfully did not cause loss of life but it did cause huge disruptions to the supply of gas in Western Australia. However, we only need to look overseas to see the potential dangers of incidents at offshore facilities. Just after 9 pm on 6 July 1988 in the British North Sea, offshore and onshore health and safety changed forever. After the Piper Alpha disaster, no-one could any longer say that they did not know that productivity too often pushed safety matters into the background. One hundred and sixty-seven offshore workers were killed by a series of explosions that ripped through oil production platforms in the northern sector of the British North Sea. The death toll was aggravated by ineptitude, complacency and a lack of leadership. Emergency lighting failed. Hardly any torches were available to the crew. Each of the lifeboats was located in the same section of the platform which also happened to be inaccessible, and no provision had been made for an alternative escape route to the sea. Most people on that platform gathered at the emergency muster point, the accommodation module, which due to its location above the gas compression module also happened to be one of the areas of the platform most exposed to fire and explosion. The accommodation module, constructed from wood and fibreglass, quickly began to burn. The water deluge system, the platform’s main defence against fire, failed. Two life rafts failed to inflate. The standby safety vessel, a converted fishing boat, had no medical supplies to treat survivors that were pulled from the sea, and the Tharos, Occidental’s state-of-the-art floating fire engine, could not muster sufficient water pressure to reach the flames. Those who ignored the company’s emergency procedures and management instructions and sought their own escape routes actually improved their chances of survival.

Occidental’s senior management had been warned by their own consultants that the platform would not withstand prolonged exposure to high-intensity fire. It was a warning that they chose to ignore after conducting a cost-benefit analysis. Managements on the other platforms connected by the same pipeline chain, the Tartan and the Claymore, declined to shut down production until they had approval for a costly closure of the pipeline from senior management onshore. As a result, the blaze was fed with oil until the order for closure belatedly arrived. The lessons of this tragedy were still not learnt or, if learnt, not acted upon when, in 2005, an incident at the BP Texas City refinery killed 15 workers.

Offshore platforms are intrinsically vulnerable workplaces, and we must never forget that. Minimally, every platform manager ought to be compelled to have a good knowledge of such catastrophes or they simply will be repeated. Each platform must have an effective health and safety committee and a good number of highly trained OH&S trained workers’ representatives on each shift. We need everything we can get if we are to stop another catastrophe.

The recent incidents in Australia have demonstrated that existing investigatory powers are not sufficient. An inquiry for the purposes of determining the operational, human and regulatory factors that contribute to serious incidents or ‘near misses’ would inform regulators and operators. I sincerely hope—and I support the work that is being done at NOPSA—that the age of our offshore helicopter fleet, which services the rigs and carries workforces to and from them, remains uppermost in the minds of our safety regulators. Helicopters, in my experience, are repeat killers in offshore tragedies. The Rudd government intends that the findings of any such commission of inquiry will be made public, subject to the disclosure and privacy provisions of other legislation. This will enable the lessons learnt from the incidents to be considered and understood by as many organisations as possible, both in Australia and overseas.

Following the Beaconsfield tragedy, there was a study of 12 royal commissions into workplace disasters, including offshore disasters, and the research demonstrated that the royal commission findings and commissions of inquiry findings were consistently the same—the problem is that we simply forgot the lessons. So the struggle for safer workplaces is one that never ends. We also need to act to shore up the gains made in the past and improve safety in the future. As I have said, it is often a struggle of memory against forgetting—remembering the lessons learnt and the lives lost. It is a struggle against the slow spread of complacency and the temptation to take shortcuts in this most important and wonderful of industries. I believe that, in a world where we can beam pictures back to earth from the surface of Mars, create machines scarcely bigger than atoms and unlock the mysteries of the DNA code, it should not be too much of a challenge to improve safety in the offshore hydrocarbon industry.

This bill and the amendments being proposed, with the ongoing proactive leadership of our Minister for Resources and Energy, are a step towards a more sensible and effective way of responding to offshore incidents, and I commend it to the House.