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A general view of Equinor's Johan Sverdrup oil field platforms in the North Sea on Dec. 3, 2019.INTS KALNINS/Reuters

The coronavirus pandemic appears to be negatively affecting safety within Norway’s oil and gas industry, which has seen a sharp rise in accidents at offshore fields, onshore plants and yards this year, its regulator said on Wednesday.

The number of serious incidents doubled to 50 in the first nine months of 2020 from the same period of 2019, the Petroleum Safety Authority (PSA) said, adding it had launched a record 11 investigations so far this year.

“Preliminary findings from some of these inquiries also show that company responses to the coronavirus epidemic may have had consequences for safety,” the regulator said in a statement.

The COVID-19 outbreak has forced oil firms to reorganise work and postpone maintenance and construction tasks in order to shield staff and operations from disease.

Among the 11 incidents under investigation was the Sept. 28 fire at Equinor’s Melkoeya liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant, which will remain shut until the end of the year while repairs take place.

No cause has so far been established for the fire, which the PSA has described as one of the most serious to hit the industry.

Majority state-owned Equinor, by far the largest firm in Norway’s oil and gas sector, was the field or plant operator at five of the other 10 incidents under investigation, the PSA said.

Most inquiries were still ongoing and the regulator had yet to draw final conclusions.

“But if these indications stand up, and the pandemic has actually had a negative impact on safety, that would be unacceptable,” PSA chief Anne Myhrvold said.

She plans to meet with all Norway’s large oil and gas operators in the coming weeks.

“My message to top management is that they must now give priority to safety work, so we can avoid accidents and serious incidents in petroleum operations,” Myhrvold said.

Equinor did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A spokesman for the Norwegian Oil and Gas Association (NOG), which represents member firms, was not immediately available for comment.

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