North Sea decommissioning rules need a re-think, academics say

The Delta topside being transported to Able UK's port in Teesside following its removal from Shell's Brent field in 2017.
The Delta topside being transported to Able UK's port in Teesside following its removal from Shell's Brent field in 2017.

Rules obliging oil companies to remove rigs from the sea should be “temporarily suspended” so that more research can be conducted, academics said.

Experts said large-scale removal can lead to biodiversity being lost through the destruction of subsea habitats, as offshore structures often develop into “artificial reefs”.

The recommendation came after a poll was carried out to guide best practice in the North Sea.

The study indicated an increase in support for a case-by-case approach to infrastructure removal.

Decommissioning practice in the UK continental shelf follows regulations laid down by Ospar, a body set-up to protect the marine environment of the north-east Atlantic.

It stipulates that installations must be removed in their entirety once they reach the end of their production cycle.

But Ospar makes exceptions if companies can prove the removal of a piece of infrastructure would be more damaging to the environment than leaving it in place.

The survey showed 36 out of 38 experts from academia, government and industry felt a more flexible, case-by-case approach would benefit the North Sea environment.

Ash Fowler, from Sydney Technology University in Australia, was lead author of the study, which was published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

Mr Fowler said current policies ignore the fact that offshore structures often develop into artificial reefs with high biodiversity and come to form part of the ecosystem.

He said: “These structures are huge and removing them is complex and costly. Our findings indicate that here is a big gap between existing policy and current knowledge of decommissioning impacts.”

A UK decommissioning chief said last year that the rigs-to-reefs concept was a “non-starter” in British waters on economic grounds.

Wendy Kennedy, chief executive of the Offshore Petroleum Regulator for Environment and Decommissioning (Opred), said: “We do not see rigs-to-reefs as an acceptable solution and no operators have come forward to us with that solution.

“It would not offer the savings some people think. By the time you have plugged and abandoned the wells and removed the topside, the majority of the overall cost has been accounted for. Then you need to monitor what you’ve left behind, so there is not much to be gained in terms of cost saving.”

 

 

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