Up against Ospar

Elaine Maslin

December 1, 2016

In Europe, and in other regions, the guiding principle for the rules governing oil and gas infrastructure decommissioning have been a return to a clean seabed. These principles are being challenged. Elaine Maslin reports.

Anadarko’s Red Hawk topsides lifted off towing. Photo from InterMoor.

As decommissioning work mounts in areas like the UK North Sea, where huge platforms were built to withstand harsh environments, there is now push back and calls for a different approach to decommissioning, i.e. one where substructures can be left in place.

Indeed, in the Netherlands, one firm, Engie, is taking the bull by the horns. Engie has proposed a rigs to reef pilot project in the Dutch North Sea (Read more: Platforms, naturally) in a move that will test the established rules – that anything weighing under 10,000-tonne has to be removed and anything, regardless of weight, built after 1999 has to be removed.

They’re part of a growing group that is arguing that more not only could, but should be left in place than what is currently the norm. They say that more damage would be caused to the environment by removing the likes of footings and large seafloor-based structures than leaving them in place and that current practices need to be reassessed. This is because these structures have become marine life havens, protected as they are from fishing.

“A funny thing happens. Corals and barnacles form [on structures] and fish start feeding on them, using the platform as a habitat,” says Tom Campbell, partner at law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, based in Houston. “What we have is not rigs to reefs, these platforms are the reef,” he told an audience during the EXT:end event in Aberdeen in September.

“The question is,” asks Campbell, who played a role in formulating the US government’s response to the Exxon Valdez oil spill, “is all decommissioning appropriate?” The usual challenge is whether a clean seabed is appropriate, he says. “But, I put forward a different challenge – the ecological cost of a clean seabed is too high and we should re-examine all our conclusions based on that hypothesis.”

Red Hawk Spar towed vertically to its reefing site. Photo from InterMoor.

Scale of the challenge

While it’s a global problem, with some 603 facilities in the North Sea to be removed and a staggering 3450 in the US Gulf of Mexico (GoM), the scale of the challenge differs in different basins. In the US GoM, for example, many of the facilities are small. Idle iron rules, developed to deal with hurricane wrecked facilities, have also meant GoM facilities have been removed quickly and that has meant an established removals market has been formed.

The GoM also has a rigs to reefs program and this is starting to include larger facilities, such as the Red Hawk spar (OE: May 2015 - Red Hawk spar flies home) and soon also the Lena compliant guyed tower. However, rigs to reefs is not yet established offshore California or in the North Sea, where there are more, larger facilities, which creates a bigger challenge when it comes to removing them.

Decommissioning in the North Sea is governed to a large degree by the Ospar Commission (named after the Oslo and Paris conventions, which agreed terms for anti-dumping in the Northeast Atlantic) regulations. These stipulate that everything should be removed, but that a derogation order (exemption) could be given for structures installed prior to 1999, which weigh more than 10,000-tonne. Shell is looking to apply for an exemption for its three Brent concrete substructures and a fourth structure made from steel.

Dave Sinclair, head of decommissioning at Maersk Oil, told EXT:end the Ospar derogation helps to some extent, but that “the basic assumption of Ospar appears to be fundamentally flawed.” Mark Richardson, from Apache UK, put it more bluntly: “Why aren’t we cleaning up platforms [substructures] and leaving them? It causes less damage. The only people who benefit (from removal) is the supply chain and [because of the cost liabilities of decommissioning, meaning companies have to prove they can afford decommissioning programs] it [the liability] means you cannot sell on assets. It’s madness. We need to take a step back.”

Taking a step back

The Brent D platform. Photo from Shell.

Indeed, some are taking a step back. An event, at the start of this month (December), is due to set out research being done under the INSITE (Influence of Structures in the Ecosystem) program, which is looking at the influence of man-made structures – such as oil and gas platforms – on the marine ecosystem. This, it is hoped, will provide hard evidence of how platforms and infrastructure react with sea life and whether it’s of benefit. OE will report on that in an upcoming issue.

Some research has already been published. Campbell cites work carried out by Sylvia Earle, who has a PhD in phytoplankton and is explorer in residence for the National Geographic Society. “[Earle] says once created – the habitat around a rig – it’s extremely disruptive to that habitat to remove the rig,” Campbell says. Victoria Todd, a marine mammal scientist at Ocean Science Consulting, researched what influence facilities had on porpoises – and found that facilities were havens for porpoises, as well as other marine life that are able to shelter from fisheries. “Todd says mammals go from platform to platform as they migrate around the North Sea. If removed, [it would] eliminate key feeding areas,” Campbell says. The University of California also says some platforms in North California produce more benefit than any natural habitat, Campbell adds.

Approaches to how wildlife is impacted by oil facilities – or just oil, were challenged during the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Campbell says, who led a federal government scheme for assessing the ecological impact of the spill. He says that during that process a series of tools for measuring ecological impact was developed. One approach challenged steam cleaning a beach versus cold water cleaning. While the steam cleaning removed all the oil, it also destroyed the life on the beach.

This work, which led to the development of analysis tools such as net environmental benefit analysis (NEBA), and habitat equivalency analysis, “challenges the presumption that a clean seabed is the best option,” Campbell says.

“We have come to the conclusion that ecological services come from these structures [platforms, etc.] and that these can be quantified. In our infancy, we came to the clean seabed conclusion and that wasn’t based on science, it was based on emotion. Now we have information.” He says, if we acted now, as we would have done 25 years ago, habitats would be destroyed. “It would be irresponsible and that should be the new paradigm going forward.”

Indeed, another speaker said if the paradigm didn’t change, the industry would be forced to remove the ecosystems that had been created around platform structures and turn the seabed into a “desert,” like the rest of the seabed had been, due to fishing.

Such an approach is just what Engie is proposing to do. The firm is seeking to leave in place two relatively small southern North Sea steel jackets, removing a third, nearby, as a control. The trial, if it goes ahead, will run for 15 years before any substantive results can be delivered. Subject to funding, the firm plans to enhance the reef area, but, if the project isn’t a success – based on criteria set out by environmental groups – it will still remove the structures.

Brent field CGI - A CGI illustraton of the Brent field. Image from Shell.

Challenging Ospar

Challenging the Ospar regulations, may not be easy or quick, EXT:end heard. Engie is looking at a 15-year wait for results from its project. Some would like change to come sooner. But, there’s a five-year review period, which is coming up in 2018. Recommendations would need to be put forward before 2018 by the Oil and Gas Industry Council, which submits them to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, which then submits the recommendations to Ospar.

It’s a long process and it involves challenging potential public perceptions that industry’s wish not to remove structures is just about cost. “It is difficult for operators to say they don’t want to remove stuff from the North Sea,” Sinclair says. People will say ‘of course you don’t.’” He says that scientific evidence needs to be built up to show why a change is needed. But, a delegate at the event countered: “For every beautiful picture of fish, it is easy to show a picture of a deformed fish from contamination,” adding that the public doesn’t even trust scientists at the moment.

There’s also a lack of appetite by operators to stand up and say removal is the wrong thing to do. “It’s not a view expressed enough in the industry. It’s just not done,” says Tim Martin, managing director, UK, Ramboll. There is the work through the INSITE program. But, “I think oil companies should stand up more and say we are not doing the right thing,” says Callum Falconer, director, CRF Consultants. John Warrender, managing director of Addax Petroleum, adds: “Companies are still more focused on managing uncertainty than on influencing change.”

Possibly more likely is that there could be an incremental move towards leaving structures in place, through precedent allowed by the current Ospar regulations, which allow derogations in certain circumstances. Shell’s Brent facilities, for example, come within the derogation rules, subject to an application to Ospar, and would start to set a precedent, as well as provide the industry with further evidence with which to make its case. Engie’s work will take this further, and address the vast majority of facilities which are much smaller than the huge Brent structures. And, not every platform will provide a significant habitat, Campbell says. Each will have to be assessed on a case by case basis.

For Brian Twomey, managing director at Reverse Engineering, the key is how you interpret regulations, in the UK as well as elsewhere.

“Many are realizing how expensive it is and want to reduce costs,” he says. “The secret is how to interpret and apply regulations. To make that successful, you need partnership between regulators and oil companies and the contractors delivering the work.

“Most of our work now is working with regulators and oil companies about what regulations mean. How much do you have to remove, how clean is clean… I would see the North Sea is behind the rest of the world on this point.” He points to the US GoM where, while there’s a mandate to leave the seabed clean, facilities like the Red Hawk spar have been disposed of on the seabed. “Ospar is not the whole problem, it is only part of it,” he says.

But, if structures are left in place, what then? Who has ownership and responsibility for structures left in place in the future? Richardson says that it shouldn’t be a problem. “If we meet regulatory requirements, at some point we must be able to sign off that it’s now a clean seabed. There are plenty of wrecks out there that have same issue.” Others point to the thousands of ship wrecks lining the UK’s coasts. Rick Wenning, principal and leader ecological services, Ramboll, points to the former nuclear submarine, HMS Scylla, which was engineered down, made safe, cleaned and parked as a wreck dive site.

Engie’s project could also help set the ground rules for such issues. It could just take some time before it can offer at least some of the answers.

See more: Red Hawk artificial reef

Read more: Platforms, naturally!