“What keeps you up at night?” is the question that North Sea veteran Ray Riddoch recalls being asked by industry regulators.
“That was about process safety at the time,” he said. “But equally, now that we’ve all got a high level of awareness of our responsibility to the environment and to society, you need to think about what would keep you awake in that area.
“I think management of well integrity is a huge one for me.”
Formerly the Europe and Africa boss at operator Nexen/CNOOC, Riddoch has kept busy since stepping down from the role in early 2020.
In October last year he became chairman of Sentinel Subsea, a specialist firm formed in 2018 whose technology is designed to act like a “smoke alarm for the sea” should any decommissioned oil and gas wells leak.
What “sold” the 40-year industry expert on Sentinel is the technology’s ability to inform operators quickly of even the tiniest release – a step change in improving the environmental monitoring and reaction time to any issues.
“As things stand just now, you would normally inspect a subsea well once a year. You’d get a flypast with an ROV, possibly some divers, and that’s it.
“That’s fine on Monday 1st of January and you get a thumbs up. But come Monday 1st February, you don’t know where you are with that well.
“You do know the topside wells, but you don’t know the subsea wells. That’s where my mind started going. To be environmentally responsible, you take as many measures as you can to mitigate against leaks but also to monitor and react to leaks in an appropriate manner.”
Riddoch recalled his own experience in the operator community, which would put so much investment into the monitoring of topside wells in order to protect the offshore workforce.
Environmental concerns, and the safety issues linked to that, are also paramount, hence high hopes for the take up of Sentinel’s technology on the subsea side.
To that end, the firm has already got orders from overseas and a successful deployment in the UK.
“They’re in Brazil, they’re in Australia, they’re in Canada and I think that there’s a huge market in the UK as well. There are literally hundreds of subsea wells out there,” said Riddoch.
Over the next decade, the UK sector is expected to plug and abandon 582 subsea wells, according to latest figures from trade body Offshore Energies UK.
Having that piece of mind, and the ability to take action quickly, strikes at the heart of environmental social and governance (ESG) priorities, argues Riddoch, which is “what Sentinel brings to the party”.
“I think it’s an extremely well understood issue, especially over the last number of years where society has changed and operators are very aware of their responsibilities and accountabilities for guarding the environment.
“In many ways, this is one of the first pieces of technology to come forward on the subsea wells side to help them in their efforts to protect the environment.
“There will be other technology which comes out, but this is a frontrunner.”
Net Zero: ‘It will happen – it has to happen’
ESG concerns have never been higher for the industry, particularly now as the North Sea works towards very stringent emissions targets.
The North Sea Transition Deal requires a 50% cut by 2030 and Riddoch, speaking in a personal capacity, said there is “no doubt in my mind that the target is a tight one”.
But every operator is working on the problem. Such are the efforts underway in the North Sea, he believes some of the emissions-busting tech broadly being deployed could help other industrial sectors, citing recent discussions he’s had on the construction, agricultural and processing industries.
The ultimate net zero goal “needs dedicated effort and everyone to get behind it”, but Riddoch believes “we can get there” and ultimately reduce reliance on fossil fuels.
“I will happen, there’s no doubt about it. It has to happen, let’s be frank about it.”
Society at large demands more of industry and government too. Riddoch said his own children, in their twenties, reflect a wider generational change in the expectations for business and politicians.
“I think they’re more socially aware than I ever was when I was 24, they have a higher level of concern than I had when I was that age – that’s not to say I don’t have that level of respect now of course!”
He said it is “admirable” that a generation is “poking the conscience of society” to enact change.
Industry agrees on the destination of net zero, the question that ligers is how to get there and deliver the transition.
“I don’t think yet there’s a good understanding that the impacts apply to all industries. It’s not just about putting electric cars in the street, it’s the manufacture of that electric car and the charging points.
“Hydrocarbons are a key element in the transition to net zero. It becomes less important and less influential as we get towards 2050, because technology is going to take off and we’re going to be replacing it.”
Society, in part due to the “horrendous situation” in Ukraine and the ripple effects from it, is bringing some more nuance into the debate around oil and gas, he argued.
“I think that, more than at any other point in time, we’re beginning to realise that we should rely and be dependent on our own hydrocarbon supply – at this point in time.
“Until we’re reliant and dependent upon renewables. It’s that transition period and that’s going to be a challenge in the years to come.”
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has also seen the oil price continue to hover at around $100 a barrel.
Riddoch recalled a similar price point in 2013/ 2014, when the market was “heating up” before a major crash, which then required huge efficiency measures in the North Sea.
The lessons from that period should be kept “irrespective” of the price now, he said, which he expects OEUK and the North Sea regulator will continue to advocate.
“Let’s not lose sight of that fantastic work in the industry and let’s not get overly excited about $100 a barrel,” he added.
Amid the ongoing debate on the future of the North Sea, what Riddoch hopes does not get lost is the people aspect; the workers who hold the skills required to deliver the energy transition for projects like carbon capture and storage, hydrogen and offshore wind.
Industry argues that preventing new oil and gas fields in the North Sea would accelerate the wind-down of the industry too rapidly and jeopardise its ability to preserve those skills for the transition.
Consternation also remains around duplicated training costs for workers trying to move into renewables, as industry attempts to deliver a “passport” for people to make that shift more easily.
Those having to pay thousands of pounds to “retrain in a skill they’ve already got” is “lunacy”, as Riddoch put it.
“We’ve got to work hard on ensuring the transferability of that skill and competence into the renewables sector.
“In the midst of all the debate around about achieving net zero, I wouldn’t want the people element to be lost – and I certainly wouldn’t want it to come last.
“I think it’s got to be pretty high up on the debating agenda as we sit here today.”