The Minister should understand that some of us feel deeply that an improper relationship is involved. Indeed, it is
an incestuous relationship. The sponsoring Department has no business getting involved with health and safety.
—— W. G. Carson
A few months after Bryan Gould aired The Last Dive, a well-documented book about the UK offshore oil industry was published entitled The Other Price of Britain’s Oil. It was written by W. G. “Kit” Carson. Carson was not a man particularly attracted to the high drama of North Sea diving accidents. He wasn’t a diver, a rig worker, or a journalist looking for his next day’s headline. In fact, he’d never worked offshore at all, and yet he knew more about the North Sea oil industry in ways that even Richard Walker and Skip Guiel would have found astonishing. Dr. Carson was a professor of criminology at the University of Edinburgh, and like Bryan Gould, became inextricably drawn to the Wildrake accident, but for entirely different reasons.
The Other Price of Britain’s Oil, p. 174.
With a long‑standing interest in British factory legislation, Carson wanted to investigate the offshore oil industry, its safety practices, and how the government regulatory system was working. With the sudden discovery of “unanticipated wealth” off the coast, Carson suspected that Britain’s quest for oil “might turn out to be a rough and tough affair in which questions of safety were pushed aside in the pursuit of riches previously undreamed of.”1
In 1976, he received a small government grant to determine whether such an investigation was even feasible. When his initial research indicated that it was, he was given a final grant to complete his work. In 1982, he published his landmark study which effectively linked Britain’s policy of rapid exploitation to the North Sea’s poor safety record and ultimately to the kinds of tragic consequences that fell upon men like Richard and Skip.
Carson discovered that the origin of this link could be traced back to the mid-1960s when the country’s reliance on imported oil was putting pressure on the national Treasury, and at a time when seismic testing in the North Sea was suggesting that the Continental Shelf might contain significant quantities of oil and gas. Desperate to head off mounting economic woes, it didn’t take government officials long to commit the nation to an ambitious program where rapid exploitation became the dominant theme towards curbing the balance‑of‑payments problem.2 In the years that followed, speed underscored all developing events. It was a fundamental ingredient in the drive towards self-sufficiency and it explained why successive administrations allowed offshore operations to proceed without first ensuring that adequate safety provisions were in place.3
By the end of 1973, Britain’s economy was in dire straights. War had broken out in the Middle East with OPEC nearly quadrupling the price of crude. The country’s oil importation bill, which was once calculated in the hundreds of millions of pounds in the mid-1960s, was now on a collision course with the unheard of sum of nearly £4 billion by the end of 1976.4
On the streets, an angry citizenry was feeling the weight of the energy crisis and uncontrollable inflation. Food prices had risen dramatically, power restrictions were in force, and industry was on a three‑day‑work week. On the eve of a general election, the country was in a state of emergency and Prime Minister Edward Heath was under tremendous pressure to take the nation’s energy policy out of the hands of the colossal Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and elevate it to cabinet level. Not to do so was considered to be “a serious disadvantage,”5 and the Prime Minister agreed.
On January 8, 1974, Heath created the Department of Energy and installed heavyweight Lord Carrington as energy czar. The mandate of the new agency was to assist the oil industry with such things as licensing and the development of energy policy. But its responsibilities also extended to the creation and enforcement of regulations that the oil companies had to comply with. In effect, the DOE wore two hats, and to some North Sea observers this spelled trouble for the offshore worker because it set up a competition between the government’s exploitation policy and the role of safety. There was a real fear that Department officials, caught between conflicting priorities, might lack the necessary independence to impose the law upon, or even criticize, the very industry it was sponsoring. And, in a larger context, the question could be asked: would an administration really punish an industry for misconduct when it lays at its feet the very resources which enhances its ability to stay in power? These fears gain further momentum by something else Carson discovered: not only had authorities incorporated the administration of safety into a framework where the rush for oil had become a top economic priority,6 but they also “vertically structured” the chain of command so as to leave those responsible for safety “answerable to superiors whose brief included other, and not necessarily compatible, objectives.”7
Unlike safety inspectors who worked onshore within the Health and Safety Executive, DOE inspectors were rarely rotated to new locations to prevent fraternization. Inevitably, in their struggle to discover what industry was learning, regulators developed a “close relationship” with the regulated.8 The two bodies began exchanging personnel which helped to strengthen bonds and ensure a “common outlook” in terms of achieving economic goals.9 To oil executives, there was nothing improper about enticing government regulators to come work for them, but to critics this practice smelled like a system of “deferred bribery.”10
While authorities in Norway would remove the responsibility for health and safety from the industry’s sponsoring department, British officials, in contrast, not only resisted this approach, but took extraordinary measures to ensure that the supervision of safety remained in the hands of an organization with a less than autonomous view of the industry it was regulating.
Ultimately, Carson says the oil industry’s self-definition became “institutionalized” within the bureaucratic structure of the DOE.11 Even Energy Secretary Tony Benn conceded that the relationship between regulators and regulated tended to get “a bit cosy.”12
That cozy relationship later became an issue before the Burgoyne Committee when it began looking into the DOE’s handling of offshore safety. In its final report, two dissenting committee members, Miller and Lyons, warned that the potential for conflict of interest was real and could not be overlooked. In their view, the whole approach to the administration and enforcement of offshore safety was “unacceptable” and adamantly stood on the principle that:
a Government Department substantially responsible for the direction and control of an industry should not in any way be responsible for the standards and enforcement of occupational health and safety in that industry.13
Not surprisingly, the Department of Energy bristles at any implication that safety was compromised by the pressures of oil production. One junior Minister responsible for offshore safety is quoted by Carson as saying that everyone...
in the Department of Energy, from the Secretary of State downwards, is dedicated to safety as a number one priority. We realize the value of the resources we have in the North Sea; we are anxious to have those reserves brought to the surface as quickly as possible; but we are not going to sacrifice one life in order to achieve this, if we can possibly help it.14
But Carson says “such bland assurances” were contradicted by a bias within a state structure that, on occasion, firmly weighted the “relative priorities” of production against the enforcement of safety by the DOE.15 Whether that bias gained a foothold in the small branch that regulated diving is not something Carson specifically addressed in his study. But his research does at least raise the specter that the same kinds of pressures affecting the parent agency as a whole may have created a situation where the diving industry’s reputation for danger became a convenient excuse to obscure a death toll that was unnecessarily high for other reasons. Moreover, when one looks into the past and examines the case histories of other fatalities, it becomes clear that the Diving Inspectorate’s special relationship with industry fostered conditions where the Wildrake tragedy became the inevitable consequence of years of regulatory neglect and industry abuse. At least one Wildrake diver is convinced that it was and contends that, by 1979, the industry was poised for such an accident, and that when it finally occurred, it exposed all the tragic political and human consequences of a failed enforcement regime.
At the root cause of this failure lay the conflict that put safety inspectors in the untenable position of having to weigh the political and economic consequences of interrupting the flow of oil against the concern for safety. While DOE officials were keen to invest themselves with bumper‑sticker slogans like “Safety First,” they showed no such enthusiasm towards solving the internal problems of inadequate staffing, poor salaries, and lack of experience of diving inspectors. Nor was there an aggressive campaign to carry out one of the diving division’s prime directives, that of preventing similar accidents from repeating themselves.
As written, the law in some critically significant areas was manifestly vague. That vagueness allowed contractors to circumvent the intent of the legislation for economic gain. And while they employed resource after resource to obfuscate the law or head off new legislation to close the gap on unsafe practices, divers continued to die. In one remarkably sad and unaccounted for period, inspectors deliberately ignored the obvious lethal consequences of one particular diving practice that accounted for one third of all fatalities within the first ten year period of the Diving Inspectorate’s tenure.
While it had the power to shut down unsafe operations, the Inspectorate never exercised those powers, even after serious accidents. Instead, it avoided that responsibility and allowed a profit‑motivated industry to police itself and, on occasion, to flagrantly ignore the law. Even in those rare instances when the Inspectorate found criminal proceedings to be unavoidable, its watchdogs not only displayed a lack of knowledge in preparing evidence for prosecutions,16 they sometimes appeared in court defending the very practice that contributed to the fatality.
In short, instead of discovering evidence to support the premise that strict law enforcement was the standard of the day, what one finds is the final piece of the puzzle which led to the Wildrake tragedy—an inept government agency that cultivated a questionable enforcement record, was all too willing to wear its sponsorship hat more often than its safety hat, and took little or no corrective action to curb the abuses that laid the foundation for what would happen to Richard and Skip.
1 W. G. Carson, The Other Price of Britain’s Oil, p. ix.
2 W. G. Carson, The Other Price of Britain’s Oil, p. 91.
3 W. G. Carson, The Other Price of Britain’s Oil, p. 9.
4 Brown Book, 1977, p. 2.
5 Peter Hennessy, Whitehall, p. 446.
6 W. G. Carson, The Other Price of Britain’s Oil, p. 166-167.
7 W. G. Carson, The Other Price of Britain’s Oil, p. 165.
8 W. G. Carson, The Other Price of Britain’s Oil, p. 173.
9 Charles Woolfson, John Foster, and Matthias Beck, Paying for the Piper, p. 265.
10 Charles Woolfson, John Foster, and Matthias Beck, Paying for the Piper, p. 266.
11 W. G. Carson, The Other Price of Britain’s Oil, p. 203.
12 W. G. Carson, The Other Price of Britain’s Oil, p. 175.
13 The Burgoyne Report, Offshore Safety, p. 58.
14 W. G. Carson, The Other Price of Britain’s Oil, p. 209.
15 W. G. Carson, The Other Price of Britain’s Oil, p. 209.
16 W. G. Carson, The Other Price of Britain’s Oil, p. 247-248.