Varanus a missed opportunity: Marmion

Missed opportunities by both the operators and governments leading up to the catastrophic Varanus Island explosion could have changed the course of history, WA Mines Minister Bill Marmion told a major APPEA conference last week.
Varanus a missed opportunity: Marmion Varanus a missed opportunity: Marmion Varanus a missed opportunity: Marmion Varanus a missed opportunity: Marmion Varanus a missed opportunity: Marmion

West Australian mines and petroleum minister Bill Marmion dredged up some unpleasant history to ram home an urgent warning against complacency to the oil and gas industry in Perth last week.

He opened his address to the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association's historic health, safety and environment conference in Perth by mentioning the ‘V' word as one of his first points of order.

Marmion said the gas explosion which occurred around 1.30pm on June 3, 2008, on Varanus, a small island 100km west of Karratha in the state's northwest, was "the consequence of missed opportunities".

Marmion said the explosion and fire highlighted jurisdictional uncertainties across federal and state levels in the lead-up to the incident.

Those "missed opportunities", he said, were definitely historic and have led to major "lessons being learned" in the form of clearly delineated responsibilities, with WA's Department of Mines and Petroleum now in full control of safety over the Varanus plant through its Resources Safety Division.

He said it was the missed opportunities by the operators and the regulators at the time that "could have changed the course of history".

"I don't raise these points to criticise those involved, but rather to highlight the importance of learning from mistakes to ensure these events are not repeated," Marmion told delegates.

"Fortunately, no one was injured by the explosion or resulting fire that occurred on Varanus Island that day. But this was largely down to good fortune."

The explosion showered the northern section of the plant with limestone rocks and concrete - the heaviest being 17.5kg which, he pointed out, was more than enough to kill a person.

Additionally, had the winds been coming from a slightly different direction they may have blown the fire towards the gas plant and further endangered workers.

This was verified by an investigation carried out by Kym Bills and David Agostini which found that the incident "had the potential to injure or fatally injure personnel".

Marmion said this was why it is "incredibly dangerous to dismiss the seriousness of this incident based on the fact that no one was hurt".

"It is not good enough to just say ‘we were lucky'," Marmion said.

"We need to ask - what can we learn? What can the operator learn? What can regulators learn? What can industry learn?"

Jane Cutler, CEO of the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority, also didn't let dark incidents in the industry's recent past escape delegates' attention, saying the Macondo incident in April 2010 was a "company-changing" incident for many in the industry.

The gas release and subsequent explosion occurred on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig working on the Macondo exploration well for BP in the Gulf of Mexico.

Not only that, Cutler reminded delegates that images from the incident - which she displayed during her presentation - characterised the public's view of the oil and gas industry.

However, things were getting better. She noted that accident rates in per million hours were going down, with a similar trend for total recordable cases.

She reiterated the point, however, that merely communicating safety messages to workers was not enough; verifying that they understood their role in ensuring those safety measures were implemented was what counted.

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