Tom Baxter: The environmental case for leaving old oil rigs in sea

Should oil rigs be decommissioned or left in the North Sea after their working life? (Picture: Getty)
Should oil rigs be decommissioned or left in the North Sea after their working life? (Picture: Getty)
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The UK is set to spend billions on offshore decommissioning and removal. Activities will span a couple of decades as the existing producing fields become uneconomic.

The taxpayer will fund a large proportion through tax breaks. With estimates of the total decommissioning cost at £40-50 billion, the taxpayer’s portion will be around £20-25 billion, a huge sum of money.

It equates to approximately £1,000 per UK taxpayer. Decommissioning follows cessation of production. The process is permitted by the government and follows national and international laws and agreements. The case for architecture removal is based on the environmental benefits gained by returning to a clean seabed. However, a growing number of marine habitat experts are saying that there is little environmental benefit from removal. Indeed some of the decommissioning activities will do more environmental harm than good.

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

This is due to seabed disruption of marine colonies built up over 30 or so years. If the architecture is left in place, it will naturally continue to function as a reef, providing an environmental positive. In the USA, there is a rigs-to-reefs programme which allows oil structures to continue to act as a marine habitat after their industrial life. It is also interesting to note that the North Sea has over 20,000 wreck sites – there are 300 to 400 oil installations in the North Sea. The inevitable conclusion is that there is no compelling environmental basis for removal. Leaving them in place is also viewed by the Scottish Wildlife Trust and Forum for the Future as having environmental benefits.

In my 40 years in the oil and gas industry, no environmentalist has given me a reason for removal, so why are we doing it? Just because the legislation says so?

Also, the taxpayers’ investment has no legacy – we are talking about taking something to bits, not building a factory or providing new infrastructure to serve society and the economy. Also, much of the removal money will go to the heavy lift companies – and the UK has none. When the decommissioning work is complete there is no follow-on employment or commercial activity. The money used to decommission is dead – it generates nothing for the nation.

As a taxpayer my contention is that we should redirect the substantial capital spend required for removal into green energy: the consequence being far superior sustainability metrics. The benefits for society, the environment and the economy will be substantially greater than that provided from the disputed benefits of a clean seabed. 

READ MORE: Removing old North Sea rigs ‘wasting money’

Also, unlike decommissioning and removal, green energy will be making profits, producing dividends and paying taxes for most of the operational life of the green energy station. Those taxes will go to support our societal needs. Furthermore, green energy has the huge environmental positive of carbon dioxide and emissions reduction.

Despite the legislative directives being well-intentioned, it is my view that they are unfortunately taking our nation to a very poor outcome. The taxpayers’ spend is grossly disproportionate to any benefit that might be achieved.

What we can’t do though is not remove and pocket the savings. That would result in the outrage the industry experienced with Brent Spar. Unlike Brent Spar, the green energy alternative offers the WWF, Greenpeace and others a much better option for the environment.

I ask the Government to demonstrate to the taxpayer that, in these days of fiscal austerity, that the current decommissioning plans are good for society, the environment and the economy.