EARLIER this year, there were more than 30 offshore support vessels lying off Aberdeen, plus a bunch parked in the port.
While not the best indicator of prosperity – as busy OSVs don’t hang about for any more time than it takes to turn around with fresh cargoes/orders – the sheer number visible at that time was a graphic illustration of how important the oil industry is to Aberdeen harbour.
It is the number one logistics hub for the North Sea oil and gas industry, and one of the busiest ports in the UK, despite its modest size.
And the task of ensuring Aberdeen remains attractive and relevant to maritime energy falls to chief executive Colin Parker, a tall individual with direct experience of being on the bridge of OSVs.
These are good times for Mr Parker and his team. New records are being set for turning around ships and cargoes handled, and Aberdeen Harbour Board is continuing its investment in the port with an eye on the future.
“We’ve had a good start to 2011,” he told Energy.
“In the first half we were 5.4% up on shipping tonnage at 12.225million tonnes, and 4.7% up on cargo tonnage at 2.324million tonnes. It’s looking good for the rest of the year, as well.
“As normal, a high percentage of our traffic is either directly linked to supporting North Sea oil and gas or related cargoes going overseas.”
Bearing in mind the angst that the March 2011 Budget bombshell of an extra 12% selective corporation tax has generated among North Sea operators, has this had any impact on traffic?
“It’s hard to identify what the impact of that might be, because a lot of the activity that currently happens at the harbour is for projects that were sanctioned two or three years ago,” said Mr Parker.
“The rigs are booked, the vessels are booked and so I think it will be a while before we feel any impact; but it will be very hard to gauge what that impact will be.”
He agreed that, notwithstanding the extra tax burden and the damage already apparently inflicted, an Indian summer is dawning for the UK North Sea.
“I think we’re going to be busy at the present level for the next five years if the current conversations that we’re having bear out,” he said.
“Although production is declining, the effort needed to extract that oil and gas requires more equipment and that generates cargo and activity through the port. We’re reaping the benefits of that.”
Turning to overseas oil-related traffic, Mr Parker said the outlook was promising, following traffic with 41 different countries last year.
“It’s been a good first half of the year for West Africa and we see that growing year on year. However, it’s not just West Africa as equipment has also been shipped for East Africa projects.
“We’ve had a new service started by Eimskip which runs to Norway and then around to Murmansk, which means Barents Sea projects like Shtokman. This weekly service is looking good, plus we’ve had equipment going to the likes of Faroe and Greenland.”
And he believes that Aberdeen does indeed have an important role to play in supplying equipment and services into the Barents Sea sector, just as it has with West Africa.
Mr Parker acknowledged that the 2008 financial crisis had hit international traffic out of Aberdeen, but added recovery had been robust.
“There’s no doubt that the global recession had an impact a couple of years ago, but 2010 was, I think, up about 5% on the previous year, and all being well we’ll achieve similar growth this year.
“But much of the equipment shipped is project specific, so it is dependent on the stage of various developments in West Africa. Because there’s a tremendous level of activity out there now, we see further growth.
“We also see Asia-Pacific becoming more important, and also destinations on the other side of the Atlantic.”
As for investment in the port, Mr Parker said there were two main thrusts at present; the Torry Quay redevelopment that is now well advanced, and planning for widening the port’s entrance to enable larger energy service and construction ships to use the port.
“We’re currently investing £30million in the Torry Quay redevelopment that will give us further deepwater, strong quays, more space in the river and more room for the larger vessels that we’re increasingly experiencing, plus the even larger ones that are planned.
“We’ve just finished spending about £5million on Commercial Quay East, again creating more deeper water, and stronger quays, and creating the space that is required now and going forward.
“What we’ve done over the last few years with a view to the future is to remove a lot of the older buildings, many of them to do with the fishing industry that has long since declined. It’s all about creating more flexible space, with the stronger quaysides needed for the cargoes now being handled.”
On the navigation channel plan, Mr Parker said: “All being well we’ll be able to start next year on widening our channel from 34m to 60m, deepening the entrance to 8-8.5m and gradually upping the gradient to 6m adjacent to the marine operations centre.
“Discussions with Marine Scotland are going well. But, because the River Dee is a special area of conservation, we have to engage with the local authority, plus others like Scottish Natural Heritage. I predict it will go smoothly, but it will take time.”
The cost is expected to be in the range of £9-10million, which will be self-funded.
He explained that one hope is to capture offshore renewables-related traffic, including turbine installation vessels that can be up to 50m in breadth.
He added: “However, we’re aware of our limitations for renewables; we’re not going to be having manufacturing facilities in the centre of the city, but operations and maintenance support of offshore windfarms is certainly something that we see becoming another string to our bow in the future.”