Leviathan rig staff failed to grasp mortal danger posed by gas leak — report

In damning report, British firm hired to probe malfunctions says platform off Israeli coast falls short on safety assessments and verification, incident investigation and reporting

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

Screen capture from a video of natural gas being burned off from the Leviathan natural gas processing platform, May 23, 2020. (Screen capture: Walla)
Screen capture from a video of natural gas being burned off from the Leviathan natural gas processing platform, May 23, 2020. (Screen capture: Walla)

A British engineering firm hired by the Energy Ministry to investigate a long list of malfunctions on the Leviathan natural gas rig earlier this year has found that platform personnel failed to grasp the seriousness of a gas leak on May 2 which, if it had ignited, could have caused “large loss of life.”

The firm, RPS, was hired after more than 30 breakdowns occurred during the first five months of the rig’s commercial operation, which began on January 1. It found that the operator, Texas-based Noble Energy Mediterranean Ltd, fell short when it came to proper safety assessments and verification as well as incident investigation and reporting. The company said Nobel had to undertake “an extensive body of work” to bring things up to scratch.

Residents living near the platform, which is located 9.7 kilometers (six miles) out to sea off Caesarea, on Israel’s northern Mediterranean coast, were alerted repeatedly to the problems when a flare was used to burn off excess gas, sometimes causing a fireball in the sky.

A flare is a gas combustion device installed on rigs to allow excess gas to be safely burned off following malfunctions and to prevent a buildup of pressure.

View of the Leviathan gas field gas processing rig near the city of Caesarea, on January 31, 2019. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)

In a highly technical report in English, published Monday by the Energy Ministry, and containing lists of recommendations alongside timelines, RPS said that it probed the May 2 gas leak in order to test the incident investigation process.

Energy Ministry experts who visited the rig on May 5 were told by platform staff that the incident had not been important.

By contrast, a subsequent Noble Energy evaluation report found that “the incident had the potential for a large loss of life in the event that the release had ignited.”

RPS wrote, “We fully agree with this finding, which was apparent to RPS on the initial report. It is a matter of great concern that it was not apparent to Noble Energy personnel.”

RPS continued, “As of the time of writing this report, there is still no detailed investigation report to cover this incident… There are concerns regarding the event reporting, as well as the content and quality of the incident reporting.”

After incidents, personnel are required to fill in a “Five Why’s” report, RPS said. But rather than getting to the root cause, these usually stop at “apparent causes” only.

A worker walking on the Leviathan natural gas platform, offshore of Israel. (Albatross)

Commendably, lessons learned from incident investigations are shared with the crew, but are not necessarily integrated into forward planning to identify whether the same thing could happen elsewhere on the platform and be prevented in advance.

The rig’s management team did not appear to know much about functional safety standards and confirmed that certain required safety assessments had not been carried out, RPS said.

Hazard assessment materials in Noble Energy’s database are not indexed, so that platform staff were unable to find them. When asked to locate the hazard analysis for the Tamar gas platform, they failed once again.

“We believe that a good understanding of process safety is essential for all personnel,” RPS said. “For those in supervisory positions, the ability to find and understand the hazard assessments which have been carried out for the Leviathan platform, and which justify its design, is essential. It is apparent that this understanding is not present among a significant proportion of the supervisory personnel and we find this falls considerably short of good oilfield practice.”

The Noble Energy control room on the Leviathan platform on December 31, 2019. (Noble Energy)

The British team also found that staff were “almost completely unaware” of the need to check that on-board equipment and systems were working properly and safely. This too was “a major non-compliance with international standards and good oilfield practice.”

Wrote RPS, “Overall, the platform personnel were almost completely unaware of the requirements for verification. Some made ‘educated guesses’ as to what the interviewers were asking, but overall, it was apparent that there had been no effort to inform the personnel.”

Because Noble Energy had not prepared properly for verification once the rig was operational, “the platform went into production without a complete demonstration that the design performance standard requirements had been met. The operational team is thus left with a situation where an extensive body of work is required to get verification to function.”

RPS also found “no evidence” that any cybersecurity risk assessment had been carried out.

Then-Environment Protection Minister Zeev Elkin at a mobile air pollution monitoring station in Zichron Ya’akov on December 31, as the Leviathan gas supply goes online (via Twitter)

A statement from Noble Energy Mediterranean Ltd said, “The Leviathan partners welcome the audit performed by the Ministry of Energy during the start-up phase of the Leviathan Production Platform. The audit was performed with full cooperation and complete transparency, as stated in the audit report. It is our intention to implement the report’s recommendations for improvements in accordance with the timelines set forth.”

The statement added that the Leviathan project is “one of the most complex infrastructure projects in the history of the State of Israel.” It said that Noble Energy had “proven its professionalism and reliability” for 22 years during which it had operated “with the highest levels of operational safety and reliability.”

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