“We had no idea what they were going to do”

PRIME economic information agency
Геннадий Любин

Interview with Gazprom Neft Shelf LLC Executive Director Gennady Lyubin

PRIME economic information agency

The Gazprom Neft Prirazlomnoye platform (moored on the Russian Arctic Shelf) was the scene of a major protest in September 2013, when Greenpeace activists attempted to take the platform by storm, protesting against drilling in the Arctic, due to commence before the end of the year. Prosecuted for piracy, 30 people were subsequently detained.

Interviewed by Natalya Ageeva for economic information agency PRIME, Gennady Lyubin, Executive Director of Gazprom Neft Shelf LLC, operator of the Prirazlomnoye project, gives the first official assessment of the ecological activists, discusses the impact of the Greenpeace attack on operations at the platform, and explains why what happened in the Gulf of Mexico could never happen at Prirazlomnaya.

— Gennady Petrovich, what impact did the Greenpeace attack have on scheduled operations at the platform?

— It would be wrong to suggest that this incident disrupted technical operations at the platform. But you must appreciate that the platform is a complex organisational environment, run and managed by a great many people, and any attempted impact from outside can disrupt its smooth functioning.

That said, the platform is just one of the facilities we work on. Some activities have to be undertaken in a clearly delineated zone in the water around the platform, which no vessel or craft is advised to enter. The coordinates for this are fully consistent with maritime safety regulations and are supplied to captains of all vessels in the area.

As you may already have heard, underwater operations were being undertaken around the platform at the time the Greenpeace incident occurred. Divers were undertaking mandatory monitoring of the technical state of previously drilled abandoned exploratory wells, of the platform base (the “berm”), and of fish protection systems.

— And was there any real risk to people working on the platform? Did the activists manage to get onto it?

— We don’t know what the Greenpeace activists were thinking, but they weren’t able to get a foothold on the platform. From experience of other Greenpeace actions around the world, it was reasonable to assume that, once they’d got a footing on the side of the platform, the activists might have tried to climb onto the platform itself.

Similar actions have sometimes been driven by the desire to get into the object in question and, for a time at least, destabilise its operation. Which is absolutely unacceptable, because pre-commissioning activities are being undertaken at the platform, as well as construction of the first commercial well — part of pre-commissioning works being undertaken under very stressful conditions. The consequences of what the Greenpeace activists were doing at the platform could have been highly unpredictable — and, for the divers, potentially tragic.

— Did they stop the divers’ working? Or were they able to carry on with what they were doing?

— The divers’ work had to be halted by an emergency order. None of us had any idea that people in high-speed inflatables would start approaching the platform.

— Was it hard to predict what they were going to do?

— Completely impossible. What these people were thinking and what they had in mind as a plan of action — who could know?

—Are you going to take steps to stop a similar situation arising in future?

— You have to understand, once active work starts at the platform the number of operations in the water — specifically around the platform — and the total number of special security vessels, will increase.

Which means, all operations — particularly the transfer of oil into tankers — will require maximum care to rule out any chance of an unpredictable or emergency situation arising.

Statutory documents are awaiting confirmation and approval by the appropriate agencies, which will allow us to define, as unambiguously as possible, the status of the platform and the rights of navigation in the surrounding waters.

— Did this incident cause any material damage?

— When there’s a threat to life, questions of material damage fade into insignificance.

— Were the activists trying to get directly onto the platform, or did they just want raise awareness in getting so close to it? Did they make any announcement as to their intentions?

— It will remain unknown what Greenpeace’s original intentions were. But there have been enough incidents in the past in which Greenpeace activists have directly penetrated facilities. In our case, they were trying to gain a foothold under the helipad. Had they been successful, this would have prevented its usage indefinitely. In short, we were all extremely lucky it didn’t end in tragedy.

— Was placement in custody an appropriate punishment, in your view? Or maybe it would have been enough to have fined them for damages?

— That’s an issue for the relevant government authorities to address.

— Ecologists don’t believe the sort of catastrophe that happened in the Gulf of Mexico can be ruled out at the Prirazlomnaya platform ...

— Any comparisons with the Gulf of Mexico are for people without access to any technical information. Either the Greenpeace activists themselves don’t understand the differences — but that then begs the question — how they could be so far from the truth? The weight of the platform — at 500,000 tonnes — makes it almost impossible to move! The base on which the platform is built could withstand a torpedo strike!

Operations in the Gulf of Mexico are under completely different conditions and use altogether different production technology. There, well drilling is undertaken using a floating platform, hundreds of metres from the seabed. Whereas the depth of the sea around our field is only 19 to 20 metres — which is why the Prirazlomnaya platform has been built directly on the seabed.

Added to which, production in the Gulf of Mexico uses a very complicated intermediate structure between the rig and the actual well on the seabed; whereas all of our wells are located directly in the centre of the platform. The platform base, at the same time, acts as a buffer between the well and the open sea.

As regards the construction of the well — the design of the wellhead on the Prirazlomnaya platform is exactly the same as it would be onshore. There’s an inbuilt safety assurance system in the construction of the well — specific internal borehole adjustments, safety valves — a whole range of equipment ensuring maximum safety in well operation. The two systems are completely different.

— So you, personally, would rule out even the theoretical possibility of the Gulf of Mexico spill being repeated?

— Legally, we can’t, currently, rule out such a possibility. We have had to prepare a prevention and response plan in the event of an oil spill, developed in line with current regulation and approved by the relevant government agencies. We produced this and posted a synopsis on our website — anybody who wants to can see it.

Of course, nothing can be ruled out — that’s just life. But, at the same time, there has to be a certain logic and reason to things: you can’t just say something is bad — just because it’s bad. On that basis, you and I would never drive, or take air flights, in case they crashed. But that doesn’t mean you can’t undertake projects like these.

— It’s claimed that the top part of the platform was built 30 years ago ...

— I don’t know where that information has come from, but it’s completely untrue. Active construction of the platform was started in 2008. This project received Glavgosekspertisa approval and passed an environmental impact assessment. We passed another environmental impact assessment in 2012 since, by that time, the previous one had expired. There is absolutely no old equipment on the platform, whatsoever. All equipment has been purchased after 2008 — from leading international producers.

— Oil produced at the platform will be stored in the lower part?

— Yes, in what we call the “suction caisson” or “anchor”. Construction of the suction caisson, as I’ve already explained, is such that it could withstand a direct torpedo strike. It’s made of 42-millimetre steel plating — wear-resistant, stainless steel — with three metres of concrete: the fact is, it’s a wall. In other words — nothing in the ever-changing climatic and environmental conditions around the platform is going to impact it, throughout its useful life.

— Аnd what about during transhipment to tankers — could anything happen?

— Transhipment to tankers is a very standard operation, used in all oil terminals and on all oil platforms — it’s not rocket science. Of course, every platform is unique, but the equipment used is pretty standard, produced by Aker Kvaerner, one of the world’s leading producers. There’s an emergency shutdown process in place to prevent any oil spillage during the transfer.

— You say there are already proven technologies and established mechanisms for reloading tankers, but it’s one thing for all of this to be applied under straightforward conditions, as in the Mexican Gulf: you, though, are working in the Arctic — and if there’s an oil spill on the ice, how are you going to eradicate that?

— In order to minimise the inherent environmental and climatic risks, we’ve had two special tankers made, fulfilling all conditions to ensure the full safety of such operations. There’s nothing like them anywhere else in the world; these are very high-grade ice-class tankers, meeting all international safety standards and regulations for use under such conditions.

The dynamic positioning system allows us to hold the tanker in place, regardless of wind or waves, allowing us to move astern. For that reason we believe that we now have in place all necessary equipment, of the highest class.

— So you could eradicate any oil spill on the ice?

— The platform isn’t located in an area of solid ice cover, or drifting ice. We believe we have considered every possibility, and are ready to respond to anything unexpected. The platform is constructed in such a way as to ensure maximum safety.

— Did Greenpeace give you any warning that they were planning a stunt? Did they send you any sort of notification or request?

— We only learned about Greenpeace’s arrival when the ship appeared on our platform radar; that they were planning to do anything became clear only once the high-speed inflatables had made a start for the platform.

— Had Greenpeace requested any information?

— They regularly send all kinds of requests. They described the oil spill response plan as untenable, and claimed the platform did not provide for safe development of the field. Added to which, they dismiss any contention with “That won’t do, that’s bad, that’s not right, you’re doing it all wrong.”

You can only have a dialogue if people are listening to each other. And when one side is completely negative about everything, and manipulating information — that’s not a dialogue, that’s an attempt to impose their own views. We know, all too well, the cost of any mistake on our part. We’ve done everything we can to optimise safety on this facility.

— Are you prepared to get in touch with environmental organisations and study their recommendations?

— In order to minimise environmental impacts we undertake environmental monitoring every year, involving various measures to track any changes in the environment. This is undertaken not by ourselves, but rather by independent specialist organisations. The platform today shows no negative environmental impacts — something that has been confirmed by official documents. The platform operates on closed-loop-cycle, zero-waste production: everything produced on the platform is utilised, with no environmental emissions.

— Who do you relate to organisations like Greenpeace, in general? Are you prepared to enter into any dialogue with them in the future?

— If they’re constructive, then yes.

— And what, in your view, would constitute “constructive dialogue”?

—Professionals speaking the same language and listening to each other.

— Ecologists say opening up the Prirazlomnoye field isn’t viable ...

— I find it strange when ecologists start holding forth on economics. That’s a conversation for specialists involved in economics and commercial viability. What does “non-viable” mean? Those tax concessions and regulations the government allocates to a specific region have an effect both for the government, and for us. Ecological organisations claim the platform was built with government funds and taxpayers’ money. That’s complete nonsense. The company is conducting operations through its own funds, together with bank credit facilities — there’s no government financing whatsoever.

— When will production at the Prirazlomnoye field start?

— Work is currently underway on the commissioning and installation of equipment, as well as stress-testing, and construction of the first production well is in hand, with production due to start this year. As of now, we want to get ready to start commercial production.

The key objective for us is not achieving our goal at any cost, but, rather, to confirm — as a priority — the reliability, safety and operability of the facility. Work is running according schedule, expert assessments and monitoring obligations notwithstanding.