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Interview

Shell: upcycling innovation

7 June 2017

Brent decommissioning project director Alistair Hope of Shell UK Exploration and Production explains how shutting down some of the UK’s North Sea oil wells is breathing new life into the sector and into the UK’s high-tech and engineering IP sectors

Why has innovative technology been needed to decommission the Brent oil field in the North Sea?

The North Sea was real frontier pioneering in the world of engineering back in the seventies and eighties. It’s the same now for decommissioning – you need some really terrific engineering innovation and new technology, as well as teamwork and collaboration. We needed time to look at the technical challenges and conduct our studies. Not all decommissioning programmes are like that – a lot of them are very simple, but given all the issues that Brent has, we felt that was the right approach.

Wasn’t the decommissioning planned when the wells were set up?

If you go back to when the Brent oil field was discovered in 1971 and when we had first production at the end of ’76, the timings were close to the two major oil price shocks of ’73 and ’79. It was a strategic national priority to secure energy supplies, because most of the oil was coming from Iran and the Middle East at that time. There was a national push to get these things done as quickly as possible. In those days, whether it was power stations, houses – nothing was really designed with energy efficiency, sustainability or decommissioning in mind. Yet the world looks very different today. Since the mid-nineties offshore installations have been designed to be removed.

The industry’s not dead. We still need great engineers to build and operate these things

In 2007, when we were planning North Sea decommissioning, we decided to start our stakeholder involvement straight away and work on it together. After 10 years of work with our stakeholders we have a comprehensive decommissioning plan. It’s 3,000 pages long and there are 300 different studies supporting it. All of them have been subject to independent review by a group of academics chaired by Professor John Shepherd. He put together a panel of independent scientists from around Europe – Norway, the Netherlands, Norway, and Germany – who have reviewed all our science and engineering as we’ve gone along.

How have the technical and up-cycling challenges inspired innovation?

The biggest challenge involved the Pioneering Spirit, the Allseas ship, in the Brent Delta 24,200 tonne platform lift – the heaviest ever marine ‘topside’ lift. Our engineers were able to demonstrate that these structures could survive single-lift and transportation and loading – things weren’t going to fall off. Allseas had been thinking about a project like this for a while, but they didn’t have anyone brave enough to sign up as a customer, so they were very happy to have Shell and Exxon-Mobil as their first customers for Pioneering Spirit.

We’ve developed next-generation equipment that can get into the storage cells

There were test-tank trials of each major component, with a model in a giant swimming pool. We did test lifts – all culminating in an absolutely flawless execution of the world’s biggest marine lift. It’s the result of five years’ great teamwork with Allseas and numerous subcontractors and, of course, the recycling yard at ABLE in Teesside – 97 per cent of the steel will be recycled. But you can’t just put 24,000 tonnes on a quayside. You have to design the quay to take that weight. So, beneath that rather simple-looking lump of concrete there’s actually quite a lot of engineering design. There are 1,200 piles that go down to the bedrock. It’s the strongest quay in Europe. It’s a great example of brownfield construction.

How else has high-tech collaboration on decommissioning stimulated local business?

We’ve developed next-generation equipment that can get into the storage cells. We’ve been using that to extract remaining ‘attic’ oil with two small Aberdeen-based companies. Enpro has provided the hardware that attaches to the cell tops to drill through and take the samples out and ROVOP provides the remote operated vehicles we use to make it safe. It’s a unique problem being solved by small local companies with the technical know-how to drive the cost down and make it affordable. We are currently working on the Bravo and Charlie platforms as well, there’s several years of work left to do.

Will all this help to revive jobs?

This emerging subsector of the North Sea oil and gas industry does require a new mindset. It’s important to move away from the mental model of when the North Sea was being built. There was a jobs bonanza up and down the coast of Scotland and the north of England, with thousands of people being employed in construction.

We still need great engineers to build and operate these things as well as decommission them

Decommissioning is a $160bn market globally between now and 2030, and it’s ripe for innovation and new technology. But the sort of services that could be exported are the high-end engineering, the clever ways to plug and make safe wells. It’s about the knowledge economy and services. I don't think it’s going to be recycling yards because it just wouldn’t make economic sense to drag oil rigs halfway around the world to dismantle.

If you look at the Gulf of Mexico, they’ve done about 4,000 platforms, albeit in shallow water. In the North Sea we’ve done about 150. There is a mature subsector in the Gulf of Mexico that has specialised in decommissioning and that’s what we’re seeing emerging in the North Sea and in the UK in particular. If the UK can get good at this, there’s a chance to export skills and services to the rest of the world.

Tapti, for example, is the first decommissioning project in India - and we’ve been able to use some of our learnings from the North Sea. An Aberdeen company has won a contract against global competition to do the front-end engineering concept work. There is a huge opportunity there for the UK and North Sea to export those high-end engineering skills.

We’re also getting ideas in decommissioning that we can then take into other phases or construction and production – because the industry’s not dead. We still need great engineers to build and operate these things as well as decommission them.

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