Data Capital: From ‘black gold’ to ‘new gold’

Decades of data gathered by the oil and gas industry is now helping with the switch to offshore renewable energy, and carbon capture and storage, writes Peter Ranscombe and David Lee
Image: Adobe StockImage: Adobe Stock
Image: Adobe Stock

Watch any film or television series about the North Sea and the storyline is likely to revolve around the roughnecks, roustabouts, and other offshore workers braving the wind and the waves to keep their rigs in action. Computer geeks seldom get a look-in.

Yet, back on dry land, the oil and gas industry has been collecting data about the seabed and the layers lying beneath since drilling began on the UK’s continental shelf back in the 1960s. Now, that data is being repurposed to look for the best sites to erect offshore wind farms and to store carbon dioxide and hydrogen.

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The information is held in the national data repository (NDR), which brings together seismic surveys, well reports, and other facts and figures gathered by oil and gas explorers, developers, and producers in the UK’s territorial waters. The repository switched to cloud storage in 2021 and, within a year, the amount of information available mushroomed from 15 terabytes (TB) to 230TB.

That growth has continued: during the past six months, the amount of data available in the NDR has doubled to 460TB, enough to fill the hard drives of about 60 of Apple’s high-end MacBook Pro laptops. Around 4,000 active users from some 250 organisations are interrogating the database regularly.

“The data was collected over the past 50 or 60 years by the oil and gas industry but, over the past six to eight months, we’ve seen far more usage coming from the energy transition-related part of offshore energy,” says Nic Granger, corporate director and chief financial officer at the North Sea Transition Authority (NSTA), the UK Government body that was known as the Oil & Gas Authority until last year. “For example, we’ve had a company called RockWave take some of the shallow seismic data that the oil and gas industry traditionally wouldn’t use that much and repurpose it for offshore wind.”

RockWave used the data to help a consortium composed of power company SSE, investment manager Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners (CIP), and Japanese conglomerate Marubeni to win a licence in the 2022 ScotWind leasing round to build what will be one of the world’s largest floating wind farms. The site for the proposed project lies in the “East 1 Zone” off the Angus coast.

“We’re definitely seeing data as a key element in the success of the first UK carbon storage round,” adds Granger. “On the day we announced that first round, we saw 20 times the usual number of downloads of data from the NDR.”

Once carbon capture technology has been developed, scientists aim to store the carbon dioxide that is removed from the atmosphere in empty chambers under the seabed that previously held oil and gas. Other projects suggest storing hydrogen in similar chambers after splitting water into its hydrogen and oxygen constituent parts using electricity generated by renewable energy sources.

As well as companies using the NDR, university researchers are also interested in the data. “We’ve got 180 academic users registered – from every continent apart fromAntarctica – and we’re seeing the data being used in a whole range of areas, from hydrogen storage and geothermal, through to undergraduate teaching and as a source for machine learning for simulator development,” says Granger.

One of the academics who has used the NDR’s contents extensively is Professor John Underhill, director of the Centre for Energy Transition at the University of Aberdeen. “From a university’s perspective, the NDR allows us to train the next generation of geoscientists using state-of-the-art methods and data,” he says.

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“The NDR is absolutely vital in underpinning our understanding of the subsurface and repurposing sedimentary basins like the North Sea for the energy transition. What the UK has done in putting these data into the public domain in the NDR is a tremendous thing and gives the UK a head-start in selecting the right sites for the right reasons.”

Underhill points out that carbon dioxide molecules are smaller than oil and gas molecules and so can escape more easily from beneath the seabed. Hydrogen molecules are even smaller and so any sub-surface storage needs to be sealed even more tightly.

The NDR allows Underhill and other scientists to identify which oil and gas fields also held carbon dioxide naturally, and to spot other areas that might be suitable for storing the greenhouse gas. And the data highlights areas where there are overlaps between sites that could be suitable for carbon capture and storage (CCS) and offshore wind farms.

“It’s a bit like a ski slalom,” says Underhill. “If you have turbines fixed to the seabed then it’s hard to sail your boat in a straight line to shoot the seismic data you need to assess if the area beneath the seabed is suitable for carbon storage, or to monitor it for any leaks if it’s already a carbon store.”

One of the highest-profile areas where leases overlap is off the coast of Yorkshire, where the BP-led Northern Endurance Partnership CCS project overlaps with the fourth phase of Orsted’s Hornsea wind farm. Shell and ScottishPower’s MarramWind offshore site also overlaps with Aberdeenshire’s proposed Acorn CCS project, in which Shell is also a partner.

“We could end up with the unintended consequences of not having the best use of the offshore subsurface,” Underhill adds. “The NDR at least allows us early sight of where some of these conflicts arise.”

Could the data from the NDR lead to the seabed and the structures beneath being split into zones for offshore wind, CCS, and other uses? “I think that would be the optimal outcome – I don’t think we’re on the pathway to that at the moment, but at least there is a greater recognition now that marine spatial planning needs to be sorted out if we’re going to have a chance to remain on the path to net-zero,” says Underhill.

Granger says that the NSTA worked with the Crown Estate and Crown Estate Scotland to create an app to help planners see the current and potential uses of the UK’s territorial waters using the authority’s open data portal, a source of geospatial – ie, location – data that sits alongside the NDR. She adds: “One thing that’s clear to us is that spatial planning is the way that you end up with the efficient and effective integrated offshore energy sector.”

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