Decommissioning oil and gas facilities in the North Sea

For many years, the North Sea has been linked to the production of oil and gas and the platforms that extract these natural resources. Yet with declining oil and gas reserves, more than 600 oil and gas facilities will become candidates for decommissioning over the coming decades. The decommissioning and disposal of these installations is the subject of extensive debate as the right balance has to be found between technical feasibility, environmental protection, health and safety, cost, and public opinion.

Brent B platform - North Sea Photo: Shell

According to the OSPAR  Offshore Oil and Gas Industry Strategy, dumping or leaving disused offshore installations wholly or partly in place is prohibited in the North Sea, although there are exceptions for specific structures. IUCN is discussing with some of its private sector partners how best to achieve the OSPAR Convention’s objectives, incorporating new information about the marine biodiversity that has flourished under the platforms.For example corals have grown on some of the underwater structures and other marine species are in abundance because of hard surfaces and restrictions on fishing or other activities.

The Brent oil and gas field - with its four large fixed platforms - is nearing the end of its productive life.  Located in the East Shetland Basin, it is operated by Shell for and on behalf of Shell U.K. Limited and Esso Exploration and Production UK Limited. It once was one of the most productive fields of the UK's offshore assets. Decommissoning this field will be a huge, complex and technically-challenging undertaking. Planning for its decommissioning is a long term process which started in 2006.

Shell is investigating options for decommissioning through wide internal and external consultation, and has been holding stakeholder dialogue sessions since 2007. These sessions have been an ideal way for stakeholders to raise issues, concerns and ideas for Shell to consider as the company proceeds through the decommissioning planning process. This engagement will continue leading up to when the proposed decommissioning programme is submitted to the UK regulator – the Department of Energy and Climate Change – for regulatory approval, and throughout the approvals and derogation processes which includes a period of statutory public consultation. 

The Brent decommissioning team has asked IUCN for new ideas and approaches in their stakeholder consultation process. The request was part of the IUCN-Shell collaborative agreement, which provides for substantive collaboration on delivering conservation outcomes. In May of 2008, IUCN Secretariat staff first visited Aberdeen to engage with Shell staff regarding decommissioning of oil and gas platforms in the North Sea, especially in the Brent field. IUCN suggested that the engagement consider broader North Sea issues and work towards a holistic, ecosystem-based management plan for the North Sea. IUCN and Shell have been negotiating the exact approach and process for this North Sea work over the past three years.

The IUCN Regional Director for Europe, Dr Hans Friederich and IUCN Regional Constituency Coordinator for Europe, Susanna Soderstrom joined the Brent decommissioning team for a one-day workshop in Aberdeen on 13 May 2011 to discuss the current status of the stakeholder engagement and the process of consultation.

Hans Friederich said: “It appears that Shell is very thorough in its process to follow the legal requirements and other obligations under the OSPAR Convention and in its efforts to engage with stakeholders. We see that there are fantastic opportunities to reach win-win situations between the company and its stakeholders when some of the planned actions could be reviewed.  We believe that ongoing and increased consultation with key stakeholders could lead to some exciting developments that are good for society and do not harm the environment.”

1. OSPAR is the mechanism by which fifteen Governments of the western coasts and catchments of Europe, together with the European Community, cooperate to protect the marine environment of the North-East Atlantic. It started in 1972 with the Oslo Convention against dumping. It was broadened to cover land-based sources and the offshore industry by the Paris Convention of 1974. These two conventions were unified, up-dated and extended by the 1992 OSPAR Convention.


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