Scarcely a day passes without the oil and gas industry hitting the headlines in one way or the other.
The main focus in recent months has obviously been the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
The Transocean rig working for BP exploded on April 20, killing 11 workers and setting off one of the worst oil spills in history.
There have been plenty of good stories out of the North Sea recently, however, with positive news on the likes of the Cladhan discovery, the Catcher area, Cygnus field and the Blakeney and Viola North prospects.
UK waters are very much alive and kicking, as far as oil and gas exploration is concerned but the gulf disaster has also led to a downside.
Greenpeace climbers mounted a protest on a rig working for Scottish company Cairn Energy off Greenland last week.
The four environmental campaigners had boarded the semisubmersible Stena Don to protest against the “huge risks” energy companies were taking with the environment by drilling for oil in deep water.
Greenpeace is also threatening the UK Government with legal action over drilling for oil in British waters.
It accused ministers of granting licences for deep-sea drilling before the causes of the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster had been properly established.
So what does the future hold for the North Sea business?
Alistair Birnie, chief executive of industry body Subsea UK, said the news of new finds in British waters underlined the continued potential in the area.
He added: “Those in the industry are fully aware of the continuing development opportunities in the North Sea and hopefully we will finally be able to put to bed the perception that this industry is in decline or dead. Capital spending in the North Sea is coming back up and, while we may have passed the halfway mark in . . . reserves recovered, we are not seeing a sharp decline but rather a gradual one with some more peaks in the curve.”
Mr Birnie said that gone were the days of just drilling, hoping and praying, adding: “These days, the finds are brought to us through advances in data acquisition and interpretation.
“We have pushed the boundaries massively in the last decade and are now able to return the value in that investment by tapping into these newly found targets.
“Subsea technology and processes are pivotal to extending the life of the North Sea and there is still much to play for as developments which were once considered impossible now become technologically and commercially viable.
“Around 50% of North Sea developments are subsea and the UK subsea sector, with its long and impressive track record, still leads the way around the world.”
The impact of Deepwater Horizon is likely to be felt by the oil and gas industry around the world for years if not decades to come.
Mr Birnie said: “While everyone wishes the Gulf of Mexico incident had not happened, and its consequential impact had not been so widespread, as with all tragic incidents some positives have emerged.
“We have learned a huge amount about how to avoid such an incident happening again, which will save future lives. We are also much better prepared to address similar future incidents much more quickly and effectively.”
He said it was no surprise that so many UK companies were involved in the recovery engineering and operations phase after the US spill, adding: “The UK is a recognised centre of excellence for a very diverse range of knowledge and capabilities, and we have shown yet again that we are capable of mobilising this capability effectively and rapidly to grasp problems head-on and solve them.
“The reason we are so effective in reacting to this type of situation is that we are so active across the world in so many diverse projects that the knowledge pool is kept current and at the cutting edge.
“Knowing both the science and the application is a massively powerful mix, and something that few other countries can replicate.
“Many more firms are working on integrity, reliability and risk-mitigation strategies for operating in the high-risk deepwater environment. Safety, integrity and reliability of subsea systems in extreme environments are where our companies excel and we have proven methodologies already in operation in the North Sea which also benefits from being highly regulated.
“The UK oil and gas industry has always risen to the challenge of adversity and, in learning from past mistakes, we have spawned whole new procedures, systems and technologies which are in demand around the world.”
So are companies operating in British waters likely to face more rules and regulations as a result of the US disaster?
Bob Ruddiman, Aberdeen-based head of energy at law firm McGrigors, said: “There is a lot of speculation that we are going to face tougher regulation in the UK.
“I personally don’t think it will necessarily get a lot tougher, but I do think there will be a lot more scrutiny and a desire to ensure we comply with the legislation.
“While best practices might not necessarily equate with cheapest practice, I don’t believe that it will hamper development. There is going to be lot of thinking needed about how to do this in a cost-efficient manner but health and safety is not optional and not something you can take a price view on, it’s got to be intrinsically woven into all activities.”
Andrew Reid, Aberdeen-based managing director of energy consultant Douglas-Westwood, said: “The findings and recommendations from the gulf spill have yet to be announced and a number of studies are ongoing.
“In the meantime, however, the UK industry is taking a proactive approach in reviewing its operations and ability to respond effectively to spills if it were to occur here.
“There is no doubt that the findings and recommendations coming out of the US will be reviewed by international agencies and action taken where needed, however, until such time as this comes out, it’s hard to call what precise measures may be taken.
“Insurance premiums and contingency for disasters will likely increase however, which may mean that smaller companies that the UK is reliant upon may struggle to implement drilling and exploration programmes.”
Mr Birnie said: “We should never be afraid of regulation if it is structured and objective.
“As an industry, we should continue to proactively promote self-regulation. It is in our interests as an industry and as a nation to act responsibly and to ensure that the UK is seen as the most effective and safest oil and gas regime in the world.
“We know this is already recognised through the uptake in UK initiatives overseas, and this work is continuing even now as other regions adopt UK practices.
“The issue will, however, be in maintaining an objective system that gets to the heart of issues, rather than attempting to apply a patchwork of measures that could serve to seriously undermine the whole structure of offshore safety and integrity management.”
So what are the business opportunities like in other areas of the world?
Mr Reid said: “Markets are holding up well in most locations. Brazil, particularly, is gearing up for significant investment which is benefiting subsea and offshore-orientated organisations across the globe.
“The market in Norway remains stable, and activity in the Middle East, west Africa and south-east Asia still point to having growth potential.”
Mr Ruddiman added: “A number of territories have put in place a drilling moratorium. That is going to mean some companies plans for those territories are set back however, over time, the moratoria will all be lifted and that will open up markets for those who can demonstrate best practice and a track record of safe, environmentally-friendly operations.”
Mr Birnie said: “The global thirst for UK expertise will increase and this, coupled with the pick-up of activity in the North Sea, means that the UK subsea sector, which employs around 40,000 people and generates around £5billion annually in revenue, will continue to be one of the fastest-growing and most sustainable in British industry.”