Decommissioning Brent oil and gas platform in the North Sea gives British companies a unique opportunity to develop specialist skills and expertise in safe removal and recycling of oil platforms and pipelines
Photograph taken from The Guardian Website - Bravo, one of the four Brent oil and gas platforms in the North Sea. Photograph: Alamy
The domination of the headlines by the oil price and the future of the North Sea acts as a reminder, if we needed one, of the major impact energy has on all our lives. It's also a reminder that energy comes at a cost that can be high or low, depending on supply and demand.
Securing energy for the future demands huge investment in projects designed to be productive for decades. That's well known. It's less well known that as they near the end of their lives, these oil and gas fields must be carefully retired, or decommissioned. This is the scenario that will be playing out in the North Sea in the coming decades, and it requires large investments too.
But it's far from a gloomy scenario. North Sea oil and gas fields offer the UK the chance to create a world-class hub for the safe and responsible decommissioning of platforms and pipelines. We have the potential to develop expertise that can be exported throughout the world, from the Gulf of Mexico to the South China Sea, and create thousands of highly skilled jobs.
Over the next 30 years, almost all the 470 offshore installations in the North Sea's UK Continental Shelf, such as platforms, will need to be decommissioned, according to Oil & Gas UK's Economic Report 2013. That means expenditure of between £35bn and £50bn, at least as much as the UK government plans to spend on our railway network over the next five years.
This month, a public consultation will start on the first of two plans by Shell to decommission the Brent oil and gas field, a prolific national asset. As one of the biggest and oldest fields in the North Sea, we expect the decommissioning of Brent's four platforms – called Alpha, Bravo, Charlie and Delta – to build valuable experience in removal and recycling for our industry.
It's worth recounting the big impact Brent has had on our economy and lives. It started production in 1976, just a few years after the first global oil crisis that caused oil prices to soar and the government to consider rationing petrol. Brent's output helped the country through the next oil crisis. It reduced the UK's reliance on imported energy, eventually transforming the country from a net importer to a net exporter of oil. At its peak, Brent produced enough energy to light and heat half of all UK homes.
In total, Brent has produced almost 10% of the UK's North Sea oil and gas that has boosted the UK economy since the 1970s. It has generated more than £20bn of tax revenue, that's 70 pence of every pound in profit the field has made, and created thousands of jobs.
Today, as the Brent field winds down its production, we are preparing for one of the world's most complex engineering challenges. The Brent Delta platform alone is as tall as the Eiffel Tower in Paris. The four platforms each have 'topsides'– structures that sit above the water and house accommodation and drilling equipment – with a combined weight of more than 100,000 tonnes, 47 times the weight of the London Eye. There are 64 oil storage cells at the base of the concrete legs of the Bravo, Charlie and Delta platforms, each with the capacity of four Olympic-sized swimming pools.
Decommissioning suggests that work winds down as production dries up. But that's not the case. The decommissioning of Brent will run for more than 10 years. It will require around 1,000 skilled people working offshore as well as more people working onshore, including many engineers.
Over the course of extensive consultations, as well as detailed assessments of technical and scientific aspects, Shell developed decommissioning programmes for submission to the UK government's Department of Energy and Climate Change for approval. These programmes will address the full scope of the decommissioning work that will include the four topsides, their supporting structures and the pipelines.
Weighing 23,500 tonnes, the Delta topside will be the first of the Brent topsides to be removed. One of the heaviest single objects ever lifted in the North Sea, the topside will be taken to Teesside where more than 97% of its materials will be reused or recycled. We chose this single-lift option because we consider it's the safest, least carbon-intensive and most cost-effective approach, with the lowest environmental risks.
It has taken a long time to decide on these recommendations. And we have spoken with many interested groups along the way. Indeed, we will continue to engage thoroughly and widely.
It's fair to say that did not happen two decades ago when we decommissioned Brent Spar, a redundant oil storage installation in the North Sea. Although the technical and scientific assessments led to our initial plan to safely sink Brent Spar in deep water in the Atlantic Ocean (a plan supported by the government at the time) we failed to engage sufficiently with others and win public acceptance.
This time, we are doing things differently. In preparation for decommissioning the Brent platforms, we have spoken with more than 180 organisations including the Scottish Fishermen's Association and the Marine Conservation Society as well as environmental non-governmental organisations and scientific and academic institutions. We have made changes to our proposals as a result of their feedback.
After considering other potential uses – for example, using the fields to store captured carbon dioxide – we concluded that decommissioning was the only viable option.
While some of the North Sea's most mature fields such as Brent will be decommissioned, this is not the end of domestic oil and gas production. A sustained low oil price will have an impact, no doubt, but at present investment rates, the UK's Continental Shelf could meet almost half the UK's expected oil and gas demand in 2020, continuing to create energy security, revenue and jobs.
The industry has an outstanding employment record, after all. In 2013, oil and gas companies supported around 450,000 jobs across the UK, according to Oil and Gas UK, of which 100,000 were involved in the export of good and services.
For companies considering investing in new and existing North Sea projects, the cost of decommissioning their offshore installations is a key consideration. That's, in part, why the UK government has pledged to offset some of the spending on decommissioning with tax relief. In Brent's case, it's at a rate of around 70%. This tax relief is expected to extend the life of the UK's offshore oil and gas industry because it will give companies confidence to invest.
Clearly, Shell and other oil and gas companies must address a multitude of factors when decommissioning offshore platforms and other installations. Yet in the midst of all the challenges – both technical and non-technical – lies an opportunity, especially at this time of uncertainty over the oil price and how it will affect North Sea operations.
As one of the first major fields to be decommissioned, Brent gives British companies and their suppliers an opportunity to develop new specialist skills and gain invaluable expertise, just as they did back in the 1970s when UK offshore production started. This knowledge and experience will help improve and advance future decommissioning projects, not just in the North Sea, but worldwide.
Erik Bonino, chairman of Shell UK