Lawson Petrie is a proud man. Now retired after a career mostly spent working on the pioneering Brent oil and gas field in the North Sea, he will tell you of the first time he set eyes on the four huge platforms looming through a thick fog. They were like “giant pyramids rising up from the water”.
He soon got used to the scale and complexity of the installations that operated in the Brent field: the 30-inch pipes, the “monstrous control valves”. At its peak, Brent delivered 500,000 barrels of oil a day, providing enough energy to heat and light half the homes in the UK.
But 40 years after production began, almost all of the resources that can be recovered economically have been extracted. The Brent platforms, a 50-50 partnership with Esso, now need to be retired, or decommissioned; a massive undertaking in which, remarkably, Lawson’s son Nairn is employed.
There is no easy solution to this technical challenge. We believe we have robust proposals on how it can be best achieved. Today, Shell submits recommendations to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on how to decommission Brent.
Our proposals include securing 154 wells safely, removing the tops of all four platforms, recovering debris lying on the seabed, and extracting the oil trapped in underwater storage cells. We recommend that the concrete structures, including the legs supporting the platforms, remain in place in addition to the contents of these structures. Constructed nearly half a century ago, they were not designed to be removed. We have to consider the safety of those who will work offshore to deliver this project. The safety risks associated with trying to remove them outweigh minimal environmental benefit.
These proposals are the result of 10 years of engineering and scientific analysis, independent studies and planning. Safety, environmental, societal and financial factors were at the centre of every assessment and every decision. And we carefully weighed up the technical feasibility of differing methods of decommissioning.
We also listened. We have learned from two decades ago when decommissioning Brent Spar, a floating oil storage installation in the North Sea. Then, our initial plan to tow and sink the structure safely in the Atlantic Ocean was supported by technical and scientific assessments. But it attracted widespread protest because in drawing up our plan we had failed to engage adequately with other people and organisations.
This time, our conclusions follow more than 300 studies and extensive engagement over 10 years with around 180 organisations across Europe, from the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation to the WWF Scotland. A government-led public consultation period of 60 days now begins. All responses will be considered by the government, alongside our recommendations.
As Brent and those like Lawson Petrie who worked there, pioneered energy production in the North Sea, so its decommissioning signals a new phase of activity. Beyond Brent, over the next three decades around 470 more oil and gas installations in the UK North Sea are expected to reach the natural end of their lives.
All this could sustain hundreds of jobs. And the skills and innovative technologies developed, along with the experiences gained, could be shared and exported as other ageing oil and gas platforms wind down production in other parts of the world. Just as Aberdeen has become a centre of oil and gas industry expertise that has been globally exported, decommissioning now offers further commercial opportunities in the global market for UK businesses.
While decommissioning activity will now step up, the future of UK North Sea energy production remains bright. There are still around 20 billion barrels of oil and gas which can be recovered, according to Oil & Gas UK’s latest economic report. These resources can be found in large fields as well as small pockets. Shell intends to play a role in developing some of these resources.
There are three core steps needed to ensure that the industry successfully extracts North Sea oil and gas. Companies must cut costs to be globally competitive. They also need to embrace new technologies to help them develop and produce the oil and gas. Finally, collaboration is critical, between companies like Shell and equipment suppliers; and between industry, the government and the regulator.
With success in these areas, the North Sea will remain vital to the UK’s energy security for many years to come. Though strong growth in renewable and low-carbon energy sources is also essential to helping meet future energy demand, oil and gas will continue to fuel aircraft, ships and heavy road transport and to help make products like chemicals, steel and cement into the future.
Gas can also do more. Increasing the use of natural gas in place of coal in power generation is today leading to significant reductions in UK emissions. It emits around half the carbon dioxide and less than one-tenth of the air pollutants that coal does when burnt to produce electricity. This makes gas – the cleanest-burning hydrocarbon – an ideal partner to intermittent renewable energy sources, such as wind power. It can be a vital part of any future energy system, especially when coupled with technologies that capture and store carbon or turn it into useful products like fertilisers.
Lawson Petrie and his contemporaries achieved many technical feats on Brent. They include extending the life of the field well beyond what was originally envisaged.
The next generation must now emulate their success, by learning how to safely dismantle installations in some of the world’s most difficult conditions, by exploring for more oil and gas, and by developing technologies, which accelerate the growth of renewable energy sources.
As for Nairn Petrie, there is great pride in continuing Brent’s pioneering spirit and working to retire the enormous structures which his father Lawson first laid eyes on through the fog some four decades ago.