Chasing The Prize For North Sea Oil And Gas Decommissioning

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There are currently around 320 fixed installations, such as oil platforms, in production in the UK, primarily in the North Sea. To date, oil and gas assets have enabled operators to recover more than 44 billion barrels of oil and gas. However, reserves are running out, with the remaining oil and gas becoming harder to find and extract. The government has an objective to maximize the potential economic value of the UK’s remaining oil and gas reserves.

Oil and gas operators in the UK are increasingly decommissioning their assets as they are reaching the end of their useful economic lives. Operators’ expenditure on decommissioning is rising: they have spent more than £1 billion on decommissioning in each year since 2014. According to the UK’s Oil & Gas Authority (OGA) decommissioning of the UK’s offshore oil and gas production facilities is a major industrial challenge which can create a global competitive advantage for the UK. With more than 100 offshore platforms and 5,700km of pipeline forecast to be decommissioned or reused over the next decade on the UK Continental Shelf there is a massive prize for those who can deliver the right services. The OGA estimate the total cost of oil and gas decommissioning to be £58bn.

However, the challenge is that the UK oil and gas industry is mostly unfamiliar with large-scale decommissioning projects, but much can be learned and transferred from other industries. While the innovation and transformation underway within the industry will determine our ultimate success, more immediate incremental improvements can also deliver significant results.

Step forward the National Decommissioning Centre (NDC), a global technology R&D hub, opened in Newburgh, in North-East Scotland’s Energetica Corridor late last year. The task of the NDC is to help industry deliver the >35% cost reduction target set by the regulator in 2016. Led by Professor Richard Neilson from the University of Aberdeen and the OGTC’s Dr Russell Stevenson, the NDC is developing a wide-ranging, industry-led research programme, with dedicated access to the brightest and best Ph.D. and MSc students, and several projects are already underway.

Linking industry demand and expertise with academic capability and skills will help create competitive advantage, not only for the oil and gas industry but for decommissioning challenges in the wider energy sector, for example, in offshore renewables. The NDC will also collaborate with R&D institutions and innovation centers across the country active in late life asset management and decommissioning, and partner with fishing, marine, safety, and environment organizations in the UK and internationally.

“The Centre will partner with industry and academia to deliver technology, share knowledge and provide thought leadership to reduce costs, extend field life, and challenge the conventional approach to decommissioning,” Colette Cohen, chief executive officer, the Oil & Gas Technology Centre, said.“With the global decommissioning market set to grow to £80bn over the next decade, we will work with supply chain companies and technology developers in Scotland, and across the UK, to help them develop the capability to meet domestic demand and drive export growth across the world.”

The NDC builds on the world-leading R&D capability at the University of Aberdeen in areas such as decommissioning technologies, predictive modeling, environmental assessment and the economics of decommissioning. “Our research programmes will nurture academic and technical expertise through Ph.D. opportunities that will anchor research talent here in the north-east of Scotland, while the University’s Masters programme and continuous professional development course in decommissioning will provide companies with the opportunity to upskill their staff,” George Boyne, principal of the University of Aberdeen, said.

“By building expertise at all levels – academic and within industry – we will create a competitive advantage for the oil and gas industry, and for decommissioning challenges in the wider energy sector, for example, offshore renewables.”

The NDC is home to the most powerful industrial laser at any UK academic institution, a state-of-the-art digital visualization and collaboration suite, and a supercomputer cluster enabling the fast simulation and modeling of innovative decommissioning scenarios. This includes facilities for technology trials and rapid prototyping, with a hyperbaric testing vessel that can simulate ocean conditions of 6,500m, an indoor freshwater immersion tank, environmental chambers for temperature testing from -40C to +180C and hangar space for the design and construction of decommissioning technology.