Professors suggest Shell’s decommissioning plans could pollute the North Sea
TWO leading professors of energy policy in Scotland have criticised plans by oil company Shell to leave its “Eiffel tower” sized base platforms in the North Sea, saying it could lead to significant environmental damage.
Alex Russell, chairperson of the Oil Industry Finance Association, and Peter Strachan, professor of energy policy at Robert Gordon University, argued that leaving the large base structures in place to slowly distintegrate will pollute the North Sea, and mean Scottish companies miss out on decommissioning contracts.
They said in an article for Energy Post: “Just how littered do we want our oceans to become? Will developing nations shrug and say well if that’s good enough for Scotland yes topple whatever you like onto our seabeds?”
“Failure to [remove the bases] may create another Brent Spar situation for Shell that will galvanise resistance not only in Scotland but across Europe.” Professors Russell and Strachan
The professors were speaking as Shell continues the process of decommissioning four of its largest oil platforms – Alpha, Bravo, Charlie and Delta, in the iconic “Brent” oil field, north-east of Shetland. The process is accelerating as parts of the North Sea reach the end of their production lives.
They were responding to specific proposals announced on Shell’s website, in which it stated its intention to leave what it called the “gravity base structures” upon which the platforms stand, on the sea floor. Shell has already completed the initial stages of decommissioning on its Delta platform, with the authors pointing out that 154 wells have already been “plugged” over with cement.
Shell said on its website: “The Brent’s structures have either three or four concrete legs each, around 18m in diameter and up to 165m tall. The full height of the platforms – from the seabed to the top of the structure – is equivalent to the Eiffel Tower. On balance, the recommendation is that the safest and most responsible solution is to leave the legs and oil storage cells in place.”
“There are thousands of jobs that can be created in Scotland through oil and gas decommissioning and we should not be holding back the economic opportunity this presents.” Mark Ruskell MSP
Russell and Strachan continued: “The legs below sea level will take up to an additional 500 years to fall apart.” Of even greater concern to the authors were 64 deposit cells at the base of the legs: “They can take up to 1,000 years to disintegrate. They have the potential to affect the next 40 generations of Scots whose offshore environment can be polluted for 1,000 years.”
They also suggested Shell’s decisions could mean Scotland misses out on the economic opportunities offered by decommissioning: “The plum economic contracts for topside recycling should be an issue Holyrood has an influence over, so that ways and means are found for decommissioning to be done as close as possible to where the oil platforms are situated.”
They continued: “Given the prospect of Scotland’s fishing and shipping lanes – who knows where Trident submarines meander around – being threatened by the presence of ghostly concrete towers for 1000 years, the future decommissioning of topsides being undertaken outside Scotland smacks of rubbing salt into the wound.”
“The decommissioning programme follows rigorous consultations and scientific assessments, including extensive discussions with more than 300 non-governmental organisations.” Shell spokesperson
Shell is currently putting together its final decommissioning plans for submission to the UK Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Affairs (BEIS) by the end of the year. Following this submission, a public consultation will take place, before the the proposals go to OSPAR – the international agency responsible for protecting the marine life of the North East Atlantic.
On its website, Shell says OSPAR has “granted exemptions from removal to other operators of similar structures in the North Sea”. Professors Strachan and Russell suggested OSPAR should be more robust in its regulatory role: “Once one concession is granted that becomes the precedent for similar concessions and in the blink of an eye OSPAR policy has been shredded.”
A Shell spokesperson robustly defended the company against these criticisms, arguing that the number of oil platforms using the “gravity base structures” constituted a tiny proportion of the hundreds of structures around the North Sea. The spokesperson suggested that the professors’ comments about the sea being “littered” with these structures was therefore misleading.
The Shell spokesperson told CommonSpace: “Shell intends to submit its decommissioning programme before the end of 2016. The programme will include detailed recommendations for closing down and making safe the four platforms and subsea infrastructure and follows rigorous engineering studies, expert input, consultations and scientific assessments, including extensive discussions with more than 300 non-governmental organisations, academia and local communities.”
“Shell would encourage all interested parties who have an interest in the Brent field to respond during the consultation period.” Shell spokesperson
They added: “A 60 day public consultation period will then commence and Shell would encourage all interested parties who have an interest in the Brent field to respond during the consultation period.”
The professors suggested this decision has constitutional implications: “Will it occur to Theresa May to be proactive here and tell Shell to rethink their plans for creating a scrap yard in the North Sea?” adding: “Agreement with the Shell proposals by the UK Government should not be granted without the Scottish Government.”
They added that it could lead to a PR disaster for Shell: “Does [Theresa May] realise that failure to do so may create another Brent Spar situation for Shell that will galvanise resistance not only in Scotland but across Europe?” In 1995, Greenpeace activists occupied Shell’s Brent Spar oil tanker, in protest at the corporation’s proposals to dump the tanker in the North Sea. The protests received widespread coverage and eventually saw Shell reverse its decision.
Mark Ruskell MSP, environment spokesperson for the Scottish Greens, said: “Shell and its shareholders have made millions from North Sea oil and gas and the company now has a duty to give something back. Just because these steel and concrete structures are difficult and expensive to deconstruct and move doesn’t mean Shell should walk away from its responsibilities.”
Ruskell echoed comments about the economic opportunities offered by decommissioning: “The company has the money, the manpower and the ingenuity to come up with a safe way to remove the structures and I urge them to do that. There are thousands of jobs that can be created in Scotland through oil and gas de-commissioning and we should not be holding back the economic opportunity this presents.”
Picture courtesy of Ingo Valgma
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