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Eyeing BP oil spill, British question if North Sea oil firms also push bounds of safety

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“There seems to be little evidence of improvements in practices or outcomes,” says Professor Matthias Beck, coauthor of a major study of the Piper Alpha disaster.

Two probes into BP's environmental record arose from chemical spills at facilities operated for BP by Transocean, the same contractor that operated Deepwater Horizon.

Why subcontractors may under-report accidents

North Sea oil reserves powered Britain toward prosperity in the 1980s. But British production of North Sea oil has halved in the past decade, while the country has gone from being comfortably self-sufficient in oil and gas to being a net importer, making it vulnerable to the interruption of energy supplies from abroad.

Against this backdrop, the oil and gas industry insists that Britain's offshore fields could still be delivering 1.5 million barrels a day by 2020. That would be enough to satisfy 35 percent of the country's energy demand, but only if high fuel prices and tax breaks combine to allow backlogged exploration and development projects in the North Sea to move forward again.

Working on tight margins in the North Sea, which is less lucrative than the Gulf of Mexico, oil companies have come to rely heavily on subcontractors. They pay bonuses to subcontractors that demonstrate a low rate of accidents and injuries. But Professor Beck says that such bonuses have become an incentive for subcontractors to hide safety problems.

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