Martyn McLaughlin: Should disused oil rigs be left where they are?

The idea of retaining decommissioned rigs as artificial reefs is finding unlikely allies, says Martyn McLaughlin

The Brent Spar became a bone of contention for campaign groups in the 1990s, with Greenpeace occupying the platform at one stage.

There was a time, not so long ago, when the suggestion that one of the country’s leading nature conservation charities might back the idea of allowing disused oil rigs to remain in situ off Scotland’s coastline would have been viewed as fanciful at best. But environmental policymaking, like the oil industry, is adapting to changing times and challenges.

With the final straight of a general election in sight, it should come as no surprise that a blog posted at the weekend by the Scottish Wildlife Trust’s chief executive has received scant attention. Such an oversight is regrettable, however, for it contains a thought-provoking proposal.

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Instead of decommissioning the North Sea’s vast rigs, Jonny Hughes suggested, why not try and retain them as artificial reefs for our precious marine life?

The trust’s position will come as a surprise to many. For decades, environmentalists have been broadly united against the idea of leaving rigs out at sea once they have served their purpose, a position largely shaped by the PR disaster which engulfed Shell 22 years ago.

Back in 1995, it pushed ahead with plans to tow its 14,500-tonne Brent Spar rig to the Atlantic and submerge it in the North Feni Ridge, 150 miles west of the Outer Hebrides.

Shell insisted the impact on the ocean would be minimal, and the proposal was greenlit by the Major government. Neither, however, could have predicted the furious reaction across the world.

In Hamburg, a Shell petrol station was firebombed. Governments across Europe urged the firm to rethink its plans.

The onslaught, epitomised by a three month-long protest by Greenpeace campaigners who boarded the Brent Spar as she lay at anchor off Shetland, eventually put paid to Shell’s idea.

Some 22 years on, many maintain the idea of allowing discarded rigs to remain in oceans is environmental folly. Dr Doug Parr, Greenpeace’s chief scientist, supports the underlying principle that the world’s seas cannot be used as “the junkyard of the oil industry”.

It is a debate which reignited earlier this year when Shell announced its intention to leave 10 vast concrete and steel legs from three rigs in the North Sea as part of its decommissioning drive in the Brent field.

The firm has submitted thousands of technical documents in support of the move, though Greenpeace and numerous others have warned there is insufficient detail so far.

Ministers are currently considering whether to approve Shell’s request to secure an exemption from the Ospar convention - international legislation which requires energy firms to return the marine environment to its natural state.

Such exemptions are granted sparingly, and it remains to be seen if the evidence offered by Shell is enough, but the contribution from the SWT is welcome, providing nuance to an issue that is weighed down by binary debate.

Mr Hughes makes the case that there are numerous other factors to consider beyond the impact on the environment, not least the risk posed to workers removing dangerous subsea structures which were installed carelessly and with undue haste during the oil boom years.

There are also strong economic arguments which lend the SWT’s stance credibility. At a conservative estimate, decommissioning across the UK Continental Shelf will cost around £50bn over the next 30 years, with the taxpayer footing half the bill through tax rebates.

Mr Hughes points that were the exemption criteria to be widened beyond the 40 or so structures that qualify at present, they could be kept in place.

The concept has been rolled out extensively in the Gulf of Mexico, where there is a lack of natural reefs. The rigs, supporters say, act like submerged steel skyscrapers, enhancing the marine habitat.

Not only that, but it is cost effective. Total’s MCP-01 North Sea platform was decommissioned with its concrete base left in place. The bill came in at £11.7m; were the entire platform to have been removed, it would have been £387m.

The ultimate consideration as to whether a rig - or parts of it - can be safely left must always be its impact on our marine environment, but it also offers economic potential that has perhaps been overlooked in the rush to decommissioning.

It is worth remembering that the burgeoning decommissioning industry is not the boon for Scotland it is so often portrayed as. With the lack of a specialised supply chain in place, much of the lucrative work is going to the likes of Norway and Teeside. The Scottish Government is attempting to change that with its Decommissioning Challenge Fund, designed to upgrade infrastructure, but its £5m will only go so far.

What is most intriguing about the SWT’s idea is its proposal to set aside a percentage of savings for a nationwide Marine Stewardship Fund. That not inconsiderable pot of money could, it suggests, go towards marine conservation and research efforts.

Even better, why not set it aside for investment in renewable energy? The decommissioning work is being hailed in some quarters as the saviour of the north-east, but represents a short-term economic project that will leave behind no infrastructural legacy.

A generation after the Brent Spar disaster, we should remain vigilant about abdications of corporate social responsibility, but not at the expense of considering the merits of an idea once deemed unconscionable.