Learning lessons for the future

Ian Forbes (left) and Richard Pirie with their model of the world's largest steel oil platform at McDermott's stand in 1977
Ian Forbes (left) and Richard Pirie with their model of the world's largest steel oil platform at McDermott's stand in 1977

So where next for Offshore Europe as Stott battled to anchor it solidly in a small seaport so far away from just about anywhere and best known for fish than anything else?

Stott: “Somehow, the (1975) exhibitors did a lot of business, and we survived despite a withering public dressing down from Sandy Mutch, then Convener of Grampian Regional Council, which I remember to this day.

“Clearly, lessons had to be learned, and we made a good fresh start by appointing Bryan Weavers as our technical director, Jo Kearns as exhibition manager, and Judith Patten, taking on the all-important public relations role.

“We invested £120,000 of our own money in the site – it seemed a fortune at the time – laying down a hardy Bitmac surface covering much acreage to include proper car parking as well as exhibition space, and rented a brand new and greatly superior type of temporary structure from Aberglen, then Jimmy Milne’s company.

“The 1977 and 1979 shows were both successful and we were becoming well established in the oil exhibition calendar, but it became obvious that as a major international event the infrastructure of OE left a lot to be desired.”

Again, it was the boom that was both carrying and forgiving Offshore Europe as it battled to get roots firmly set down.

If the show was a bit of a bronco, consider the North Sea, presided over by an energy secretary who was out to change things in a very big way.

Crucially, Benn established the British National Oil Corporation; its purpose was to enable the State to take shares in licences and to trade in oil on behalf of Government, which already owned half of BP.

Unlike the oil companies, BNOC would be exempt from Petroleum Revenue Tax. Its participation in licences already awarded would be a voluntary decision for the companies involved. But, in future rounds, BNOC would have the right to take up to 51%.

The organisation formally came into being on New Year’s Day, 1976, after the Wilson era closed. It did not last long. Tory leader Margaret Thatcher saw to its destruction when she swept to power in 1979 as Britain’s first female PM.

Benn’s other big ambition was for the UK to become a member of OPEC (Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries), alongside the likes of Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran and Kuwait. That never happened.

The Queen honoured BP and the North-east of Scotland by initiating the flow of oil from the North Sea giant Forties to the refinery complex at Grangemouth on the Forth. The date was November 3, 1975. The location was BP’s Dyce complex.

What she said then was very far sighted in that she talked about what we now call technology transfer.

“What has been achieved in the North Sea can be done on other Continental shelves and, no doubt, seen in very much deeper seas,” said the Queen.

“I am sure that British experience and expertise gained off our coasts will have a key role to play in developing this new offshore industry, wherever oil and gas are found.”

Prophetic words, as the hunt for oil and gas has indeed been successfully taken deepwater, almost worldwide . . . the UK Atlantic Frontier, West Africa, East Africa, Brazil, deepwater Gulf of Mexico and Falklands are prime examples.

And that hard-won expertise is indeed being transmitted overseas, and very much to UK . . . and especially Aberdeen’s, benefit.

Back to the North Sea itself where hopes had been high that Mobil’s flagship Beryl field would also be brought onstream during 1975 but delays were to force the first oil date back to mid-1976.

At the time, five huge concrete “condeep” platform structures were on order for UK projects with their combined capital cost then being quoted at more than £240million (would be £billions today).

1975 was the best year yet on the exploration hunt, with Texaco coming in with Tartan, Conoco/Statoil with the huge UK/Norwegian Statfjord discovery, Amoco – North West Hutton, Shell – Tern, Agip – Balmoral, Conoco – Britannia, Total – Alwyn North, Shell – Fulmar, Marathon – West Brae, plus others.

During the late 1970s, the biggest challenge facing Aberdeen and other upcoming oil and gas centres in Scotland (or wider UK) was the lack of infrastructure.

At that time, Aberdeen District Council (part of Grampian Region) saw the provision of land for industry as one of its most important roles, with a large number of sites provided at East and West Tullos, Northfield, Altens and Mastrick (Whitemyres Industrial Estate).

The district council was also actively involved in development and regulation of the city’s fast growing airport at Dyce.

In 1975, the airport was taken over by the British Airports Authority and a £10million major expansion programme launched, including construction of a new main terminal which was completed two years later.

On the wider Scottish versus the rest of Britain front – that is the Scottish National Party – the situation in 1976 can perhaps be best summed up by what happened at a press conference in Washington DC.

There, in October, Foreign Secretary of the day, Anthony Crossland, was asked why London was against giving Scotland independence and was reported as murmuring: “Because they have a lot of oil.”

That oil card is, of course, the ace in the SNP’s hand today, just one year off the referendum vote for independence.

The biggest event of 1976 was first commercial oil from Shell’s £2.4billion Brent field development, just five years after the giant’s discovery.

Indeed, by the end of 1976, seven UK North Sea oilfields had been brought onstream – Argyll, Auk, Forties, Montrose, Beryl, Piper and, the most recent, Brent.

And more new finds had been made, numbered among which were Pierce (Ranger), Audrey (Phillips), North Morecambe (British Gas), Machar (BP) Highlander (Texaco), Eider (Shell) and Beatrice (BP) were some. Already, though it was not realised at the time, most of the biggest fields had been located by the end of 1976.

With North Sea benchmark Brent crude up around $30 per barrel, 1977 had the makings of a decent year for the UK. As for Aberdeen, the city was climbing the league table of oil and gas centres rather nicely.

Indeed, at the 1977 Offshore Europe, Lord Provost William Fraser proclaimed that the city had become Europe’s oil capital.

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