Buchan Alpha heralds a green start to North Sea decommissioning

This article first appeared in Energy North magazine.

After decades of service in the North Sea, the Buchan Alpha is the largest decommissioning project which Shetland has seen to date. Recycling and re-use of the dismantled platform will ensure nearly 98 percent of the former oil rig will find a new lease of life, says Katrina Wiseman, Head of Business Growth at HIE Shetland.

All thing come to an end – but there is a certain sadness to see the slow bit by bit dismantling of the giant oil platforms which have served for decades in the North Sea.

Late last year Dales Voe in Shetland became the final destination for the mammoth Buchan Alpha rig – a floating production platform which produced almost 150 million barrels of oil over 36 years in the harsh waters of the Buchan Field.

And whilst the main focus for Scotland’s oil and gas industry remains maximising economic recovery within the UK North Sea, decommissioning presents an important long-term economic opportunity.

Over the next seven years it is estimated there will be an estimated £17 billion accumulated expenditure with 98 North Sea platforms requiring full or partial removal.

Given its proximity to many of the major oil fields, Scotland is well-placed to capitalise on this growing economic pipeline, and so far the UK/Scottish supply chain has been successful in securing at least 80 percent of scope or expenditure associated with current decommissioning projects.

But there is strong competition, from Teesside south of the border and from Norway across the North Sea.

For the Buchan Alpha project, Dales Voe operators Peterson and Veolia won against stiff competition, and have adopted the single life technique – utilising the giant single lift vessel (SLV) Pioneering Spirit to bring the topside ashore.

However, with a constant drive to compete and reduce costs, new contracts may be won by ports utilising the reverse installation technique with deep-draught heavy lift vessels (HLVs) coming to the fore.

These vessels need ultra-deepwater ports, and Norway, with its deep fiords, has a natural advantage with two ultra-deep water ports.

In order to compete, the Scottish Government has now committed, via its Decommissioning Challenge Fund, to support the transformation of Dales Voe into the UKs first ultra-deep facility.

This is tremendous news, and means we can compete on a level field for new work – but given the scale of the endeavour in the next decade, it is unrealistic to expect Scotland to win every large decommissioning project. Sometimes our facilities will be full and timings will not match up.

And it is just as important that we don’t just win decommissioning projects – but that we conduct them in the right way.

Scotland’s Oil and Gas Decommissioning Action plan, developed by HIE and Scottish Enterprise, highlights the importance of recycling as much of our disused infrastructure as possible, and so far we have got off to a flying start.

To date well over 95 percent of the Buchan Alpha rig has been recycled, and we should congratulate Petersen and Veolia for their success. In total, around 12,000 tonnes of materials will be recovered through the project which is expected to complete later this year.

They have also piloted a fantastic new approach with local charity COPE Ltd – to not just recycle items from the Buchan platform, but to re-use them. (See case study.)

This pleases me immensely – COPE Ltd is a charity which HIE has been supporting for a number of years and they have built up four business hubs which are making a very positive impact on the communities they serve.

They are real champions of the circular economy – making sure that the things we make are kept in circulation and use as long as possible, rather than being just discarded or recycled.

This is a powerful philosophy and has enabled COPE to re-purpose items from the rigs such as kitchen equipment to help support their business growth. They have even recycled the recycling bins from the Buchan Alpha so they can minimise their own environmental impact!  

It is an ethos which flows through their entire charity. In 2017 their business the Shetland Home Company secured Revolve Certification, Scotland’s national re-use quality standard.

They are now one of 102 certified stores across Scotland, each externally validated and commended for their commitment to quality, professionalism, safety and continuous improvement.

It is an approach which is gaining traction. A recent Zero Waste Scotland report revealed that over 70 percent of people believe that buying second hand goods offers good value and is often cheaper than buying new.

And I think the example shown by COPE, Veolia and Peterson is one which can be copied by business Scotland-wide.

More than this, the circular economy model encourages companies to think ahead about the products they make, and how they can be repurposed in future. The industries of tomorrow should design their products with future use in mind – so we don’t end up throwing away so many things after one short lease of life.

In Shetland, HIE is committed to this philosophy. As the last traces of the Buchan Alpha disappear, it is pleasing to think of all the families and businesses around Shetland now re-using furniture, tools and electric goods that had a former life on the rigs.

Just think: the next time you are served soup by the Shetland Kitchen Company, it might well be poured by the same ladle that dished up a plate of mince and tatties to a rig worker who had just come off shift far out in the wild North Sea, many years ago.