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Shell’s titanic task of breaking up massive North Sea oil structures

Screen Shot 2015-02-02 at 23.14.09Article by Peter Campbell On The Brent Delta Rig In The North Sea published by The Daily Mail/This is Money 2 Feb 2015 under the headline:

CITY FOCUS: Shell’s titanic task of breaking up massive North Sea oil structures as life of rigs comes to an end

Even though we are in British waters, the closest train station is Bergen, in Norway. In fact, the rig that we are standing on is so remote that London is three times further away than the Arctic Circle and the nearest landfall, on the Shetland Islands, is more than one hundred miles to the South West.

But Britain has this remote patch of icy water to thank for much of its prosperity over the last three decades. The Delta oil field, only a few miles from the border that divides British waters from Norwegian, has been one of the most productive ever discovered.

At its zenith in 1982, half the homes in the UK were powered thanks to the black gold that flowed from almost two miles under the sea bed.

The same four rigs, run jointly by Shell and Exxon, also produced 10 per cent of all the gas that has been extracted from the North Sea so far.

But the life of the rigs, like the reserves sitting under their colossal concrete feet, is coming to an end.

‘This is the platform that was responsible for keeping the lights on,’ says Duncan Manning, a former Marine who completed three tours of Afghanistan before joining Shell to mastermind the decommissioning project.

The first oil was discovered on the site in 1971. Now, more than four decades later, Shell reckons it has extracted 99.5 per cent of the viable material from under the surface.

It faces the mammoth task of decommissioning – literally, taking apart – the rigs.

They stand four in a line, named Alpha, Bravo, Charlie and Delta.

Of these, only Charlie is still producing. Delta, the first to end its life, began plugging the wells under its feet in 2008, and produced its last barrel in 2011.

Four years later, Shell is on the cusp of removing the rig itself.

But rather than being a ghost ship, the site is still bustling with activity. There are around 120 workers on board, from those stripping paint and removing pipework to the catering staff and maintenance crew that make sure life on board can go on.

This is not far off the 168 who could cram on board during the heyday of peak production.

Instead of taking apart the entire structure while still at sea, Shell’s proposal would see the rig top – the bit that sticks out of the water and weighs an eye-watering 23,500 tonnes – removed in a single piece.

First, diamond wire will be used to sheer off the main rig from the three legs, each of which is nearly 50ft across and made of metre-thick concrete, to allow the ship to lift the platform clear of the feet.

Then it will use the world’s largest ship the Pieter Schelte, which is almost 1300ft long, literally to pick up the platform before taking it to Able Seaton Yard in Teeside.

Once in dry dock the rig can be taken apart, with around 97 per cent of it sold on as scrap metal.

Much will end up in Turkey – a key centre in the global scrap industry – and the same steel will be melted down and could appear in washing machines or fridges sold in the UK in as little as nine months.

On paper, the plan sounds ambitious. Seeing the rig for yourself brings home the truly herculean scale of the task. The deck of the platform is more than 80ft above the sea level.

What appear to be calm waves gently rolling below our feet are in fact huge swells rising more than 12ft up the concrete legs of the rig.

But these conditions – even though they are enough to delay the helicopters that are the only connection with the shore – are relatively benign.

Crew members still talk in awed tones about the ‘hundred year wave’ that swept through more than a decade ago, stripping scaffolding from the underside of the platform and rocking the normally impregnable structure with such force that several workers broke bones after falling out of their bunks.

It is not a life for the faint hearted – from most parts of the platform it is possible to look through the grills directly under your feet into the waters far below.

Already the decommissioning has encountered delays.

Capping the wells – pouring concrete into the pipes under the sea bed to ensure that any excess oil cannot seep into the water – has taken longer than expected.

‘It’s fair to say that that has been a challenge,’ says Manning.

‘But this is an opportunity for the UK to develop the skills, experience and technology in decommissioning to export around the world.’

Even though Shell’s budget for the task is massive – running into several billions – it insists that 85pc of the money not used to hire Pieter Schelte will be spent in Britain.

In the North Sea alone, there are more than 470 platforms that will have to be taken apart in the coming years.

But though Brent is not the first, it is certainly the largest – and a guinea pig for the new technology that Shell hopes will shape the future of rig decommissioning.

If unsuccessful, and with the plan not even approved by the Energy Department there are still many hurdles to clear, the company could find itself all at sea.



FT ARTICLE: Shell prepares to dismantle North Sea giants


Royal Dutch Shell will on Tuesday set out ambitious plans to decommission the North Sea’s Brent oilfield — one of the UK’s biggest — in a multibillion-dollar project over the next 10 years that could be followed by other closures after the plunge in oil prices.

BLOOMBERG ARTICLE: Shell Plans Dismantling Platform to Begin Exit From Brent Field

BBC NEWS ARTICLE: Iconic Brent decommissioning plan unveiled by Royal Dutch Shell

TELEGRAPH ARTICLE: Shell to dismantle North Sea oil platforms after four decades

HERALD SCOTLAND: End of a North Sea era: Shell draws up plans to dismantle Brent field

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