Losing control? Norway’s oil workers face jobs threat as rigs go remote

Losing control? Norway’s oil workers face jobs threat as rigs go remote
Unmanned installations allow oil companies to save costs on helicopter transport and extra payments, but unions say remote control increases safety risks. (Reuters)
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Updated 21 October 2020

Losing control? Norway’s oil workers face jobs threat as rigs go remote

Losing control? Norway’s oil workers face jobs threat as rigs go remote
  • Lower crude prices, pandemic accelerate push for unmanned offshore platforms

OSLO: A shift to operating oil rigs remotely from land, which has been accelerated by lower crude prices, has rekindled concerns among Norwegian unions over the impact on the safety of offshore workers and the loss of well-paid jobs.

These fears were highlighted by Lederne, one of three unions representing offshore workers, which this month shut six fields in a strike that threatened a quarter of Norway’s oil and gas output, rattling global oil markets.

“The strike was not against moving controls onshore. But we needed to get the deal for our members to also be a part of the discussions about moving controls onshore and their safety,” Lederne leader Audun Ingvartsen said.

Lederne, whose strike ended on Oct. 9, is the only Norwegian oil and gas workers union which did not have an agreement for its members at onshore control rooms. Oil companies started experimenting with remote controls about seven years ago, first with smaller, unmanned installations off the coast of Norway.

Europe’s largest oil and gas producer has since become a testing ground for industry attempts to turn this technology to larger, manned platforms.

Lower oil prices and the coronavirus crisis are accelerating this shift, prompting concerns about the safety of staff still working offshore on rigs.

“Our members still wonder whether this (onshore controls) is good enough, whether it is safe enough,” Ingvartsen said.

Both Ingvartsen and Hilde-Marit Rysst, head of another union, Safe, said their member concerns relate to situational awareness of those working offshore and on land.

“When you sit on the bomb, you will react differently than when you are far away from it,” Rysst said.

About 160 km from land, Equinor’s Valemon oil and gas field became the first in Norway to be operated entirely onshore in 2017. It has living quarters and a control room, but most of the time has no crew.

Production is managed in a control room in Bergen, but its operators have to spend two weeks offshore every year to make sure they are familiar with the rig.

Jarle Eide, a representative of the Industri Energi union at Equinor, said workers were more confident than before in the use of remote controls.

“People were initially skeptical, but gradually you get used to it. I don’t think anybody feels uneasy about it today,” Eide said, speaking by phone from the Valemon platform where he is part of a 19-member crew deployed there for a two-week shift.

A technician at Equinor’s Johan Sverdrup field uses a tablet to inspect platform equipment. (Reuters)

“Of course, there is always a risk and things can go wrong, so you have to be focused on safety even during your spare time,” he added.

Aker BP took a step further last year when its Ivar Aasen field became the first manned offshore platform to be managed remotely. There are, on average, about 50 people working on the rig, which is operated on land by about 14 people.

While Ingard Haugeberg, the Industri Energi union’s representative at Aker BP, said there were no indications that workers at Ivar Aasen felt unsafe, there were concerns about fully-automated platforms in the future.

“When the technology takes over 100 percent control, we have to rethink the way forward,” he said. “There will be fewer offshore jobs available in the future, and we, as union, don’t like it.”

Aker BP and Equinor both said they have been seeking to address concerns by moving controls onshore gradually and by ensuring that workers on the platforms can take over control if needed, with emergency response available nearby. “The combination of human competence and technology provide the best solutions also as we see it with regards to maintaining safety and reducing risks,” a spokesman for Equinor, Norway’s largest oil and gas firm, said.

Meanwhile, Norway’s Petroleum Safety Authority (PSA), which has to approve new ways of controlling offshore operations, said there had been no incidents related to remote controls.

“So far, we have found no reason to raise any objections to remote control technology,” PSA spokeswoman Inger Anda said, adding that ultimate responsibility rested with the companies.

Moving workers from offshore installations allows oil companies to save on helicopter transport and the extra payments workers receive for being offshore, which could account to nearly 50 percent of a total salary, Rysst said.

Other technical innovations, such as pooling data from various sensors on an offshore platform and using machine learning to alert maintenance requirements, also help to reduce costs.

Equinor said digital solutions helped to boost earnings at its flagship Johan Sverdrup oilfield by 2 billion Norwegian crowns ($213 million) since it started production a year ago.

Sverdrup does not have an onshore control room, but Equinor has created a “digital twin” which allows engineers onshore to explore for potential improvements, while offshore workers navigate around its platforms using tablets.

Aker BP, which says on its website it sees “considerable potential for increased revenues after start-up of the onshore control room,” told Reuters it planned to remotely control more offshore platforms in the future, including at the NOAKA development, in the Norwegian North Sea.

And Equinor, which will have an onshore control room for its Martin Linge field expected to start in 2021, has said it would consider using remote control options for small and medium-sized platforms, but that the largest platforms will still be staffed.

“This is the future and we can not stop it, but we need to ensure that offshore workers have at least minimum controls and they feel safe,” Lederne’s Ingvartsen said.

Mideast’s largest car-sharing app set to expand in Saudi Arabia

Mideast’s largest car-sharing app set to expand in Saudi Arabia
Updated 47 min 34 sec ago

Mideast’s largest car-sharing app set to expand in Saudi Arabia

Mideast’s largest car-sharing app set to expand in Saudi Arabia
  • Despite travel restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic, its business grew by 16.3 percent year-on-year in 2020

DUBAI: Ekar, the Middle East’s first and largest car-sharing platform, is planning to more than double its workforce in Saudi Arabia this year as it sees demand for its services in the Kingdom continue to grow.

Founded in 2016 by Venezuelan entrepreneur Vilhelm Hedberg, Ekar started as a 15-vehicle pilot program for Etihad Airways and has now grown to around 2,000 cars across the UAE and Saudi Arabia, with plans to increase its fleet to 10,000 by the end of this year.

Customers can scan to find the nearest car to their location and, once they book the vehicle, the app opens the door and the key to the engine is located inside. The cars can be rented per minute or on a subscription basis.

“Ekar has a strong regional presence with offices in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Riyadh and a staff of 104, with 32 based in Riyadh,” Hedberg told Arab News.

“As the company looks to continue growing and expanding over the next few years, the expectation is to have a staff count of over 200 by December 2021, with over 70 of them expected to be based in Saudi Arabia.”

As a private company Ekar does not reveal its financial details, but it said despite travel restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic, its business grew by 16.3 percent year-on-year in 2020.

In November last year, the company launched Ekar Fleet, which allows car rental companies to upload their spare fleet of cars to the app.

Hedberg said initial results have been positive for the fleet service and, as a result, he is forecasting a surge in business.

“Ekar is at an inflection point, and is expected to grow its revenue by 400 times in 2021 in comparison to the previous year (2020), with the main focus being on reaching profitability by year-end 2022,” he added.

“We’re looking to further expand, not just regionally, but internationally across Asia, Turkey and Egypt in 2021.”

He said Saudi Arabia will remain a key market and he sees “tremendous potential,” with the company’s subscription model set to be launched in Riyadh in April.

“We also plan to expand our services across Saudi Arabia during 2021, with each new city we launch enjoying both car-share and subscription services,” he added.

Senate Dems strike jobless aid deal, relief bill OK in sight

Senate Dems strike jobless aid deal, relief bill OK in sight
Updated 06 March 2021

Senate Dems strike jobless aid deal, relief bill OK in sight

Senate Dems strike jobless aid deal, relief bill OK in sight
  • The overall bill, President Joe Biden’s foremost legislative priority, is aimed at battling the killer pandemic and nursing the staggered economy back to health

WASHINGTON: Senate leaders and moderate Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin struck a deal over emergency jobless benefits, breaking a logjam that had stalled the party’s showpiece $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill.
The compromise, announced by the West Virginia lawmaker and a Democratic aide late Friday, seemed to clear the way for the Senate to begin a climactic, marathon series of votes and, eventually, approval of the sweeping legislation.
The overall bill, President Joe Biden’s foremost legislative priority, is aimed at battling the killer pandemic and nursing the staggered economy back to health. It would provide direct payments of up to $1,400 to most Americans and money for COVID-19 vaccines and testing, aid to state and local governments, help for schools and the airline industry and subsidies for health insurance.
Shortly before midnight, the Senate began to take up a variety of amendments in rapid-fire fashion. The votes were mostly on Republican proposals virtually certain to fail but designed to force Democrats to cast politically awkward votes. It was unclear how long into the weekend the “vote-a-rama” would last.
More significantly, the jobless benefits agreement suggested it was just a matter of time until the Senate passes the bill. That would ship it back to the House, which was expected to give it final congressional approval and whisk it to Biden for his signature.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden supports the compromise on jobless payments.
Friday’s lengthy standoff underscored the headaches confronting party leaders over the next two years — and the tensions between progressives and centrists — as they try moving their agenda through the Congress with their slender majorities.
Manchin is probably the chamber’s most conservative Democrat, and a kingmaker in the 50-50 Senate. But the party can’t tilt too far center to win Manchin’s vote without endangering progressive support in the House, where they have a mere 10-vote edge.
Aiding unemployed Americans is a top Democratic priority. But it’s also an issue that drives a wedge between progressives seeking to help jobless constituents cope with the bleak economy and Manchin and other moderates who have wanted to trim some of the bill’s costs.
Biden noted Friday’s jobs report showing that employers added 379,000 workers — an unexpectedly strong showing. That’s still small compared to the 10 million fewer jobs since the pandemic struck a year ago.
“Without a rescue plan, these gains are going to slow,” Biden said. “We can’t afford one step forward and two steps backwards. We need to beat the virus, provide essential relief, and build an inclusive recovery.”
The overall bill faces a solid wall of GOP opposition, and Republicans used the unemployment impasse to accuse Biden of refusing to seek compromise with them.
“You could pick up the phone and end this right now,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said of Biden.
But in an encouraging sign for Biden, a poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that 70% of Americans support his handling of the pandemic, including a noteworthy 44% of Republicans.
The House approved a relief bill last weekend that included $400 weekly jobless benefits — on top of regular state payments — through August. Manchin was hoping to reduce those costs, asserting that level of payment would discourage people from returning to work, a rationale most Democrats and many economists reject.
As the day began, Democrats asserted they’d reached a compromise between party moderates and progressives extending emergency jobless benefits at $300 weekly into early October.
That plan, sponsored by Sen. Tom Carper, D-Delaware, also included tax reductions on some unemployment benefits. Without that, many Americans abruptly tossed out of jobs would face unexpected tax bills.
But by midday, lawmakers said Manchin was ready to support a less generous Republican version. That led to hours of talks involving White House aides, top Senate Democrats and Manchin as the party tried finding a way to salvage its unemployment aid package.
The compromise announced Friday night would provide $300 weekly, with the final check paid on Sept. 6, and includes the tax break on benefits.
During the “vote-a-rama,” the Senate narrowly passed an amendment from Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, that would have extended the $300 unemployment insurance benefit to July 18. But Portman’s victory was short-lived and the proposal was canceled out when the chamber subsequently passed the unemployment insurance proposal worked out by the Democrats.
Before the unemployment benefits drama began, senators voted 58-42 to kill a top progressive priority, a gradual increase in the current $7.25 hourly minimum wage to $15 over five years.
Eight Democrats voted against that proposal, suggesting that Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, and other progressives vowing to continue the effort in coming months will face a difficult fight.
That vote began shortly after 11 a.m. EST and was not formally gaveled to a close until nearly 12 hours later as Senate work ground to a halt amid the unemployment benefit negotiations.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell chided Democrats, calling their daylong effort to work out the unemployment amendment a “spectacle.”
“What this proves is there are benefits to bipartisanship when you’re dealing with an issue of this magnitude,” McConnell said.
Republicans criticized the overall relief bill as a liberal spend-fest that ignores that growing numbers of vaccinations and signs of a stirring economy suggest that the twin crises are easing.
“Democrats inherited a tide that was already turning.” McConnell said.
Democrats reject that, citing the job losses and numerous people still struggling to buy food and pay rent.
“If you just look at a big number you say, ‘Oh, everything’s getting a little better,’” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. “It’s not for the lower half of America. It’s not.”
Friday’s gridlock over unemployment benefits gridlock wasn’t the first delay on the relief package. On Thursday Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin, forced the chamber’s clerks to read aloud the entire 628-page relief bill, an exhausting task that took staffers 10 hours and 44 minutes and ended shortly after 2 a.m. EST.
Democrats made a host of other late changes to the bill, designed to nail down support. They ranged from extra money for food programs and federal subsidies for health care for workers who lose jobs to funds for rural health care and language assuring minimum amounts of money for smaller states.
In another late bargain that satisfied moderates, Biden and Senate Democrats agreed Wednesday to make some higher earners ineligible for the direct checks to individuals.

Antivirus software creator charged with cheating investors

Antivirus software creator charged with cheating investors
Updated 06 March 2021

Antivirus software creator charged with cheating investors

Antivirus software creator charged with cheating investors
  • Authorities say that McAfee and cohorts fooled investors through social media to make over $13 million
  • McAfee and his team are accused of capitalizing on zeal over the emerging cryptocurrency market as they lied to investors

NEW YORK: Antivirus software entrepreneur John McAfee was indicted on fraud and money laundering conspiracy charges alleging that he and cohorts made over $13 million by fooling investors zealous over the emerging cryptocurrency market, authorities said Friday.
McAfee, 75, was charged in a newly unsealed indictment in Manhattan federal court along with Jimmy Gale Watson Jr., who served as an executive adviser on what prosecutors described as McAfee’s “so-called cryptocurrency team.”
Prosecutors said Watson, 40, was arrested Thursday night in Texas and would make an initial appearance Friday before a federal magistrate judge in Dallas. McAfee, authorities said, is detained in Spain on separate criminal charges filed by the US Justice Department’s tax division.
Attorney Arnold Spencer, representing Watson, said his client is a decorated former Navy Seal.
“He fought for other people’s rights and liberties, and he is entitled to and looks forward to his day in court to exercise some of those very rights,” he said in an email.
“Criminal indictments are blunt instruments, not precise scalpels,” Spencer added. “This is not the right place to debate whether cutting edge technologies like cryptocurrencies are securities, commodities, or something else.”
It was not immediately clear who might represent McAfee. There was still no lawyer listed for him in the Memphis, Tennessee, federal court where tax charges were lodged against him in October.
“McAfee and Watson exploited a widely used social media platform and enthusiasm among investors in the emerging cryptocurrency market to make millions through lies and deception,” US Attorney Audrey Strauss said in a statement describing crimes in 2017 and 2018.
“The defendants allegedly used McAfee’s Twitter account to publish messages to hundreds of thousands of his Twitter followers touting various cryptocurrencies through false and misleading statements to conceal their true, self-interested motives,” she added.
In October, McAfee was charged in Tennessee with evading taxes after failing to report income made from promoting cryptocurrencies while he did consulting work, made speaking engagements and sold the rights to his life story for a documentary.
McAfee developed early Internet security software and has been sought by authorities in the US and Belize in the past.
The Tennessee indictment said McAfee failed to file tax returns from 2014 to 2018, despite receiving “considerable income” from several sources.
In July 2019, McAfee was released from detention in the Dominican Republic after he and five others were suspected of traveling on a yacht carrying high-caliber weapons, ammunition and military-style gear, officials on the Caribbean island said at the time.

More than 20,000 US organizations compromised through Microsoft flaw

More than 20,000 US organizations compromised through Microsoft flaw
Updated 06 March 2021

More than 20,000 US organizations compromised through Microsoft flaw

More than 20,000 US organizations compromised through Microsoft flaw
  • The hacks are continuing despite emergency patches issued by Microsoft on Tuesday
  • Microsoft and the person working with the US response blamed the initial wave of attacks on a Chinese government-backed actor

WASHINGTON: More than 20,000 US organizations have been compromised through a back door installed via recently patched flaws in Microsoft Corp’s email software, a person familiar with the US government’s response said on Friday.
The hacking has already reached more places than all of the tainted code downloaded from SolarWinds Corp, the company at the heart of another massive hacking spree uncovered in December.
The latest hack has left channels for remote access spread among credit unions, town governments and small businesses, according to records from the US investigation.
Tens of thousands of organizations in Asia and Europe are also affected, the records show.
The hacks are continuing despite emergency patches issued by Microsoft on Tuesday.
Microsoft, which had initially said the hacks consisted of “limited and targeted attacks,” declined to comment on the scale of the problem on Friday but said it was working with government agencies and security companies to provide help to customers.
It added, “impacted customers should contact our support teams for additional help and resources.”
One scan of connected devices showed only 10% of those vulnerable had installed the patches by Friday, though the number was rising.
Because installing the patch does not get rid of the back doors, US officials are racing to figure out how to notify all the victims and guide them in their hunt.
All of those affected appear to run Web versions of email client Outlook and host them on their own machines, instead of relying on cloud providers. That may have spared many of the biggest companies and federal government agencies, the records suggest.
The federal Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency did not respond to a request for comment.
Earlier on Friday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters that the vulnerabilities found in Microsoft’s widely used Exchange servers were “significant,” and “could have far-reaching impacts.”
“We’re concerned that there are a large number of victims,” Psaki said.
Microsoft and the person working with the US response blamed the initial wave of attacks on a Chinese government-backed actor. A Chinese government spokesman said the country was not behind the intrusions.
What started as a controlled attack late last year against a few classic espionage targets grew last month to a widespread campaign. Security officials said that implied that unless China had changed tactics, a second group may have become involved.
More attacks are expected from other hackers as the code used to take control of the mail servers spreads.
The hackers have only used the back doors to re-enter and move around the infected networks in a small percentage of cases, probably less than 1 in 10, the person working with the government said.
“A couple hundred guys are exploiting them as fast as they can,” stealing data and installing other ways to return later, he said.
The initial avenue of attack was discovered by prominent Taiwanese cyber researcher Cheng-Da Tsai, who said he reported the flaw to Microsoft in January. He said in a blog post that he was investigating whether the information leaked.
He did not respond to requests for further comment.

China says wants economy to grow over 6 percent in 2021

China says wants economy to grow over 6 percent in 2021
Updated 06 March 2021

China says wants economy to grow over 6 percent in 2021

China says wants economy to grow over 6 percent in 2021
  • Some analysts suggest the economy could expand by as much as 9% this year

BEIJING: China’s leaders said Friday they had set a target for GDP to grow more than 6 percent this year, as the world’s second largest economy surges out of a pandemic-induced slump.

The global growth powerhouse stuttered in 2020, logging its slowest expansion in four decades as strict virus containment measures at home collided with a freeze in international trade.
The slowdown raised doubts about the Communist Party’s ability to deliver on its pledge of continued prosperity in return for unquestioned political power.
But with the coronavirus largely brought under control domestically, analysts expect a strong comeback, with some suggesting the economy could expand by as much as nine percent this year.
Beijing usually sets a target it feels it can exceed. It did not set one at all last year.
Announcing the figure at the start of the annual legislative session, Premier Li Keqiang said the government had “taken into account the recovery of economic activity.”
The target of over 6 percent also dovetails with future goals, Li said, and these include reform, innovation, and “high-quality development.”
Authorities say they want to create 11 million new urban jobs this year, and keep urban unemployment around 5.5 percent.
Outside observers caution that China’s unemployment figures may not tell the whole story, with many people across the vast nation involved in the informal workforce.
Analysts had widely predicted the continued global uncertainty would make it tricky for China to set a GDP target again this year, and greeted the 6 percent figure as deliberately cautious.
“The bar is set too low ... (it’s) as if there is no target,” ING chief economist for Greater China Iris Pang told AFP.
This could be because Beijing does not want to slash its growth target next year, when distortions from the pandemic subside, added Nomura chief China economist Lu Ting.
The figure also reflects “the shifting focus from quantity to quality of economic growth,” said Zhu Chaoping, a strategist at JPMorgan Asset Management.
That could include resources being allocated to long-term initiatives like environmental protection, Zhu added.
Leaders also did not specify a growth target in its new five-year plan draft published Friday, as is its usual custom, only saying it would be “maintained within a reasonable range.”
China has been trying to rebalance the economy from its export- and investment-led economic model to one driven by consumer spending and high-quality development.
The post-COVID economic rebound saw China’s GDP growth recorded at about 2 percent last year, which made it the only major economy to post positive figures in a year lost to the virus.
With weakness around the world caused by the prolonged pandemic shutdown, capitals around the globe will be watching China’s economic performance eagerly.