West Kingfish platform; Source: ExxonMobil

ExxonMobil’s pipeline rupture at gas platform offshore Australia prompts calls to raise the regulatory action bar

The Maritime Union of Australia (MUA), established by the merger of the Seaman’s Union of Australia and Waterside Workers Federation, is adamant that a recent gas pipeline rupture at one of the aging offshore platforms in the Gippsland Basin off the Victorian coast spotlights the need to up the regulatory action ante in a bid to tackle the growing number of offshore decommissioning incidents and near misses in Australian waters.

West Kingfish platform; Source: ExxonMobil

Esso, a subsidiary of the U.S.-headquartered energy giant ExxonMobil, reported a gas pipeline rupture on April 6, 2024, at West Kingfish (WKF), one of its offshore platforms in the Gippsland Basin off the coast of Australia, which is in the early stages of decommissioning. As a result, a sizable sheen was observed on the ocean surface, heading west towards the Victorian coast due to an uncontrolled release of condensate, a mix of hydrocarbons present in natural gas extraction, into the water.

While it is unclear how close this flammable discharge came to being ignited, a recent safety alert from Australia’s National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA) warns oil and gas workers that the loss of containment in a subsea gas pipeline entails the real risk of resulting in fire and explosion at the surface. Therefore, the MUA emphasizes that tighter regulations, enforcement, penalties, and transparency regarding offshore oil and gas activities are needed in Australian waters.

Robert Lumsden, Maritime Union’s Victoria Branch Secretary, highlighted: “While investigation into this latest incident is welcome, how many times will the notices and warnings be ignored before the next disaster takes lives? The time is long overdue for NOPSEMA to serve out compliance measures for those operators who rely on taking shortcuts to expand their profitability. We call for the regulator to throw the book at offenders who systematically breach safety legislation and prosecute them to the full extent of the law.

“Despite much of this vast infrastructure being out of sight under the ocean, we know that Esso and other companies operate fields well beyond their expected life span, because they can. Now the consequences are too big to hide, Australians deserve their workplaces to be as safe as possible and a coastline free of debris and pollution. A proportionate response to Esso’s belligerence by the regulator is needed to drive compliance, and potentially influence the broader industry to tow line.”

Furthermore, the Maritime Union of Australia underlines that the latest incident comes off the back of the emergency evacuation last November of yet another Esso platform, which is being decommissioned – where a lack of contingency planning for the very likely scenario of an unserviceable helicopter landing deck saw 30 workers forced to cling to a basket (or Billy Pugh) being precariously craned aboard a support vessel.

According to the Australian union, the West Kingfish platform is currently under three separate enforcement directions from NOPSEMA and one of these has compelled an independent review into Esso’s ability to ensure a safe workplace after a fire injured a worker on its neighboring platform, which is known as Kingfish B.

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The MUA emphasizes that the gas pipeline rupture incident raises serious questions about Esso’s infrastructure safety and capacity while reminding that the offshore regulator’s investigation from 2021 found that “members of the workforce felt unable to convey their concerns about the work and were worried that their job would be at risk if they spoke up.”

Taking into account the previous and most recent incidents, the union believes that a step-up in the offshore regulatory efforts is required, especially given the recent application from Esso, which the regulator and the federal government are currently considering, to abandon and dump eight decommissioned steel platforms in the Gippsland Basin including the West Kingfish, in addition to an Esso and Woodside joint venture currently seeking EPBC Act referral and approval to start a South East carbon capture and storage (CCS) project in Commonwealth waters.

Jamie Newlyn, MUA’s Assistant National Secretary, commented: “As proponents line up to obtain licences for novel technology to store CO2 under the ocean, it has never been more critical to ensure industry operates in a transparent way, to the highest safety and environmental standards. Esso’s years of inaction on maintenance have produced fields of rusting death traps. NOPSEMA’s track record of no prosecutions, acceptance of inadequate safety cases, paired with the industry’s culture of silencing workforce reporting are a perfect storm for both workers and our oceans as decommissioning work intensifies.”

On a mission to ensure higher standards will be put in place, the MUA has made various submissions to legislative review processes presently underway, including the review of the ‘Offshore Petroleum and Greenhouse Gas Storage Act 2006,’ which is said to lack harmonized safety standards and allow workers who highlight safety concerns to be discriminated against.

“All workers deserve to come home from work safely. We know this is best achieved in a work health and safety system where workers have a strong voice in how work is carried out, are employed on a permanent basis, and have the support of a strong union so they can speak up without fear of losing their job,” added Newlyn.

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Moreover, the Maritime Union of Australia claims that oil and gas companies have influenced Australian governments to remove aspects of the national Work Health and Safety (WHS) framework and maritime safety qualifications and standards from offshore oil and gas facilities in the name of productivity and profitability.

In light of this, a resolution of the MUA’s Quadrennial National Conference from February 2024 called for “full harmonization of offshore safety with national WHS provisions, including rights for workers to get support from a union official in their workplace, a mechanism for ongoing harmonisation as national WHS laws are reviewed and updated, and responsibility for WHS matters to be transferred to the same Minister who deals with WHS across other industries.”

The Wilderness Society, which has been sounding the alarm on the delayed decommissioning effort and cuts to maintenance budgets, outlines that the latest gas pipeline incident offshore Australia follows a slew of incidents associated with long-delayed decommissioning efforts or reduced maintenance budgets.

The Tasmania-incorporated player hammers its point home by listing several examples, including a similar spill at Esso’s West Tuna oil export pipeline in 2017, the near-death of a worker during the decommissioning of Santos’ Sinbad platform near Varanus Island in 2021, the calamitous effort to remove Nganhurra Riser Turret Mooring and the last minute sale of the Northern Endeavour, leaving the clean-up in the government’s hands.

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Fern Cadman, Wilderness Society’s Fossil Fuel Campaigner, noted: “The litany of environmental and worker safety failings we are now seeing at ageing oil and gas assets, such as the Esso West Kingfish pipeline, is the result of NOPSEMA’s failure over many years to ensure companies actually meet legal decommissioning requirements.

We are seeing the number of incidents rise as the number of inspections and compliance actions decrease. It reeks of a captured regulator who puts fossil fuel company interests at the centre of its strategy rather than the protection of the environment and worker safety.

While oil and gas players have a legal obligation to entirely clean up and remove all infrastructure at the end of oil and gas production, concerns are rising as some of these companies seem to be dragging their feet on meeting this obligation. The Wilderness Society believes such procrastination leads to the degradation of infrastructure, making it more likely to cause environmental damage and endanger workers’ lives.

The oil and gas industry has a $60 billion and rising clean-up bill on its hands, and is doing everything it can to avoid getting it done. It doesn’t want to spend the money and it doesn’t want these costs sitting on balance sheets. Unless regulators start using a big stick, this mess will only get worse, and it’s taxpayers, workers and the environment that will bear the costs,” concluded Cadman.