The 1970s – A new dawn

Offshore Europe 1975 attracted delegates in droves
Offshore Europe 1975 attracted delegates in droves

Not much for Aberdonians to shout about then, unless their cookers had been converted to North Sea gas. Industrial estate planning progressed and Aberdeen harbour saw the occasional oil support vessel. Back then, drillships were small enough to get into the port too.

Things were warming a little around the Cromarty Firth, with local government politicians aware of the need to attract industry to the area, and that just might include the offshore industry, if anything was found in the Northern North Sea. Put it this way, there was enough promise and determination to stop Dr Beeching in his tracks over the planned closure of the rail link from Inverness to Wick.

If you want a measure of what wasn’t yet happening in Aberdeen as the Swinging Sixties drew to a close then dig back through the archives of Aberdeen Journals.

In its Review of the City of Aberdeen, July 1969, the P&J devoted just 33 words to the search for oil and gas in the North Sea. And the message in this brief reference was that one should not place too much hope in its success.

Bearing in mind that commercial oil production did not start for another six years (1975), there were then clear grounds for scepticism in 1969, even though Amoco discovered the Montrose field that year, and BP was to locate Forties the following year.

And how could the P&J be criticised bearing in mind the Gaskin Report published in 1969? Readers got the message from the report story’s headline: “Gaskin Report has impact of wet sponge”.

Basically Gaskin had ignored the possibility that the offshore industry might yet visit Aberdeen in a big way. But at least it was catalyst to the creation of NESDA (North-east of Scotland Development Agency) and NESJPAC (North-east of Scotland Joint Planning Advisory Committee).

Both were to grab the oil and gas opportunity and, to be fair to Aberdeen University’s Prof Gaskin, he did recommend that Altens to the south of Aberdeen be considered as an industrial estate opportunity. Of course, little did he know just how important Altens would become to the North Sea industry.

Fortunately, exploration of northern waters was starting to bring results, with Amoco coming up with its milestone Arbroath discovery on block 22/18-1) and Shell with Gannet F (block 21/30-1).

Arbroath was judged non-commercial at the time, though it was brought onstream 21 years later. Gannet F had to wait even longer, entering production in 1997 as part of a cluster of Gannet discoveries, the first of which were brought onstream five years earlier in 1992.

The significant finds were still all down south . . . Viking A Conoco), North Sean (Shell), Yare (ARCO), Gordon (BHP) and Viking E (Conoco) – all gas and all in the Southern North Sea.

On the national political front, life was not getting any easier for Wilson. The UK was an economic shambles; Britons faced devastating wildcat strikes and a crippling inflationary spiral.

Somehow, carpenter’s son Ted Heath pulled it off. He ousted Harold Wilson in 1970, despite Labour being ahead of the Tories in the opinion polls of May that year.

Elsewhere, several thousand miles away, North African politics started making life hard for Big Oil. In Libya, Colonel Gaddafi called in the 21 oil companies then active in the state’s oilfields and told them he wanted an increase in the posted price of a barrel of crude; either comply or get shut down.

It happened that Suez was then closed. Also, a key pipeline ruptured in Syria which crippled Saudi exports direct to the Mediterranean. Tanker charter rates shot up. 1.3million bpd of production had been taken out of the global marketplace.

Gaddafi got his way. The oil companies accepted the hike.

And then, in November 1970, the Shah of Iran tore up its established 50:50 profit-sharing agreement with the oil companies and forced a deal which gave Iran 55%. Other Gulf states followed suit and, in 1971, Libya leapfrogged Iran, tabling even harsher demands.

All of a sudden, to the so-called Seven Sisters (Gulf, Texaco, Mobil, Exxon, BP, Shell and Socal), the North Sea suddenly became a great deal more attractive.

The third UK licensing round was launched, with 106 out of 156 blocks on offer actually awarded to a total of 61 companies via 37 licences.

More gas discoveries were made, including: South Sean (Shell), Forbes (BHP), Amethyst West (Britoil), and South Valiant and North Valiant (Conoco).

But what made 1970 special for Britain and especially Aberdeen, was BP’s discovery of the huge Forties field 165km (110 miles) east-north-east of the city. BP made the find in October.

In 1971, PM Heath signed the Treaty of Accession, thus taking Britain into the Common Market and, cheered by BP’s Forties success and external pressures making the North Sea more attractive, exploration continued apace and yielded the next huge prize . . . Brent.

Shell Expro really struck it big time with the East Shetland Basin discovery made in July 1971. However, the brilliant news was kept under wraps until September 1972, by which time partners Shell and Esso had gauged the field’s approximate size.

Britain’s two largest oilfields had been found, with less than a year between the discoveries; oh and the Norwegians had the giant Ekofisk oilfield discovered late 1969 by Phillips Petroleum to crow about.

And, for the first time, oil discoveries outnumbered gas finds, with the Brown Book listing Auk and Brent for Shell, plus Argyll (BHP) and Montrose (Amoco). The only 1971 gas discovery noted is Conoco’s Viking C.

BP carried on drilling up Forties, with two appraisal wells completed before it moved into neighbouring block 21/9 to drill an exploration well and preparations to develop the new-found giant oilfield based on four platforms got under way.

Most main infrastructure orders were placed the following year, including fabrication of the Forties pipeline to Cruden Bay. Forties was to boast the largest platforms ever built, with Laing at Graythorpe on the Tees getting two and Highlands Fabricators on the Cromarty Firth being allocated the other two.

The North Sea was booming and that boom had finally hit the streets of Aberdeen; moreover, the Cromarty Firth and even Shetland were starting to feel the benefit.

And David Stott was watching and by then planning his oilshow. And it was to be called Offshore Scotland.

He takes up the story: “As it was, we managed to attract 140 exhibitors, who became too hot in a temperature of over 70F as the sky was blue and the sun blazed down on the canvas roof.

“Both conference and exhibition were well attended, and the event ran smoothly despite a few hoax bomb calls. The day after the show closed, snow fell and the East wind struck chill!”

Offshore Scotland had been a success; now for something bigger and bolder.

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