The pioneers of the North Sea industry worked in a harsh and unforgiving environment, with little certainty over the long-term rewards. From that though, they built what would become a bedrock of the economy and a key player in our society’s energy security.
Bob Ruddiman, head of energy at law firm Burness Paull, says: “If you’re standing at Offshore Europe in 2023, there’s an element of ‘Wow, our forebears did a lot.’ We started with virtually nothing offshore. People would have thought it was pie in the sky and now you see where we are.”
To reach this stage meant facing some huge challenges and learning tough lessons. The results are clear but Bob believes what has been achieved is not always fully appreciated.
He continues: “We’ve made incredible advances in terms of operating in an offshore marine environment with harsh conditions – dealing with wind, wave, tide and seabed state in increasingly deep water. And the subsurface knowledge and cutting-edge technology we have developed will be critical for future activities such as carbon capture and storage.
“Quite incredibly, in just over 50 years we built out a whole energy system in a harsh environment and pushed the boundaries in terms of the depth of water and the distance from the shore.
“These are incredible feats that sometimes I think went unnoticed because they were out of sight of the general populace.”
International co-operation was key
Those feats have brought highly paid jobs to the UK and built an industry that helps provide for our basic needs. But Bob believes to look at this as just a home-grown success story would be a mistake. Realising the North Sea’s potential required a huge amount of collaboration, fuelled by the networking that events such as Offshore Europe facilitate. It’s a fact that Bob believes is often overlooked.
He adds: “Let’s make no mistake, without the Dutch, the French, and the Americans in particular, we couldn’t have developed this. We needed their expertise and we also needed some foreign capital. We couldn’t have done it without them.
“Our offshore supply chain developed from that, learning from those people.”
Bright times ahead if we do it right
So what does the future hold for this vital sector?
Bob sees plenty of reasons for optimism. But collaboration will again be key to future growth.
He says: “I still see significant opportunity as a nation to be exporting energy services and supporting aspects of the global energy industry.
“While I’d love to be able to say, ‘We’ll manufacture all the steel, we’ll manufacture all the turbines, we’ll manufacture all the blades,’ I’m struggling even with my most optimistic filter to see that because there are countries that are way ahead. We do not have the roots in the UK.
“It doesn’t mean that we haven’t got a massive opportunity.
“History might repeat itself because we weren’t in the first wave of offshore oil and gas and services. We evolved.”
Also key will be the political will, along with the necessary investment to see things flourish.
Bob adds: “All the political parties should be looking at the national imperative and providing the basic societal need of energy and continuing to grow the economy whilst delivering energy transition. We need to invest in technology and infrastructure, develop skills that will support that, and develop skills that can be exported.”
Of course, renewables and the drive to Net Zero will be central to the future of the offshore industry. That can perhaps sometimes be seen as in opposition to the oil and gas sector. But Bob believes the two in fact work well together, helping to forge a strong and sustainable future.
He says: “I firmly believe the oil and gas industry buys into renewables. If you look at things like the Energy Transition Zone and the Net Zero Technology Centre here in Aberdeen, they’re not independent of the oil and gas sector. They recognise the symbiotic relationship that exists. As you look ahead and look at the new forms of industry, I think there’s an impressive ecosystem developing around that.
“Nothing’s off limits. It’s incredibly exciting.”
Burness Paull are experts in the legal issues surrounding energy projects. To find out more visit their website.