SOME of the greatest engineering challenges of our time are fixed to the seabed of the North Sea.
The next chapter in the history of the oil and gas industry will demand the same ingenuity as its dawn 50 years ago.
Until recently decommissioning was seen as the end of an era of oil and gas production, when all we had to do was simply turn off the valves, clear up and go home.
Yet in those mature North Sea oil fields, the UK has the skills and the opportunity to pioneer innovative solutions to the challenges of decommissioning.
Over the next 50 or so years, it is expected that over £46 billion will be spent decommissioning offshore platforms, wells and pipelines.
There are more than 500 structures and 10,000 miles of pipeline to be decommissioned.
With the fall in the oil price, attention has naturally shifted to uneconomic assets and decisions about whether the decommissioning process should be accelerated.
North Sea oil firm Fairfield Energy has announced plans to start decommissioning its Dunlin assets this summer. Since production began in 1978, the Dunlin cluster fields have produced 522 million barrels of oil.
Taxation law changes have confirmed the UK government is a major stakeholder in meeting decommissioning costs.
So the industry has a responsibility to demonstrate its plans for decommissioning are cost effective.
The Wood Review has urged decommissioning should be a primary focus, and highlighted the need for a strategic approach with increased collaboration to be cost effective.
The Royal Academy of Engineering has acknowledged that decommissioning of the UK Continental Shelf is a major engineering challenge which represents a significant opportunity for UK industry.
Lessons learned here will have potential to be exported abroad. This closing chapter in the North Sea’s history heralds the beginning of the next.
• Richard Heard is managing director of Strategic Decom, a specialist consultancy which advises companies on the safe, efficient and cost-effective decommissioning of assets