The gargantuan production platforms which speck the North Sea have been a staple of Scottish industry for decades. A marvel of engineering and science, these vast structures have extracted countless barrels of oil from the deep. Although the industry has not has its troubles to seek in recent years, these behemoths still evoke a wild frontier.
They were, however, never designed to be a permanent fixture. Some four decades after the boom days of the 1970s, another major industry is preparing for its heyday in the form of decommissioning.
If the task of establishing the platforms was formidable, the job of dismantling much of its infrastructure is no less daunting, even with four decades’ worth of technological advancements
Make no mistake, this will be an enormous endeavour; the industry body Oil & Gas UK has estimated that more than 100 platforms are expected to be completely or partially removed from UK and Norwegian continental shelves within the next eight years.
The plans unveiled yesterday by Shell represent one of the most significant efforts to that end. The energy giant has submitted its decommissioning programme for the Brent oil and gas field to the UK government, a key stage in a process that has been in the planning for a decade.
With upwards of £17 billion expected to be spent on industry-wide decommissioning by 2025, Shell’s efforts will doubtless produce employment, and ensure that it continues to make handsome revenues from the North Sea. But with opportunity comes responsibility, especially in such a volatile and hostile working environment.
It is crucial that Shell embarks on its decommissioning work with the environment in mind. Many will remember the furore over its attempts to dump its Brent Spar oil rig at sea in the mid 1990s, a proposal it eventually scrapped after coming under intense international pressure.
Lessons have been learned from those days, yet it is vital questions are still asked of the process. Is it realistic to think that the company can leave next to no trace of its presence in the North Sea? And what about the safety procedures for those workers who, like many before them, will be risking their lives in carrying out the job? There must also be an impact on shipping while the work is being conducted.
Around 4,000 pages of technical documents have been published by Shell as part of its submission; all must be carefully scrutinised over the coming 60 day consultation period. WWF Scotland are right to point out that oil and gas companies operating in the North Sea not only have a legal obligation to clean up their sites, but a moral one as well.
For its part, Shell said it has carried out extensive analysis, scientific research and detailed consultations with over 180 organisations. That is a prudent and promising indication of the way forward. It is to be hoped that Shell – and others – will stay the course.