|by Alistair Birnie
by Malcolm Webb
by Joanne Leng MBE
Director Business Development
A major player- for how much longer?
It is the 79-th largest country in the world, roughly comparable in size to the American state of Oregon, encompassing a minute fraction of one per cent of the earth's land area. But the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland can take credit for more than 40 per cent, by some accounts, of the world's great discoveries and inventions. From the 17th-century mathematician Isaac Newton's discovery of gravity, to the achievement of Watson and Crick, who unravelled the ‘double helix’ structure of DNA in 1953, British scientists have always been up there with the world's greatest. From the first steam engine to the jet engine; the first computer to the world wide web; the telephone, television and light bulb; penicillin, vaccination and Viagra; the chocolate bar, and the gin and tonic; not to mention the flushing toilet, the UK has been and remains one of the most creative and productive societies on the planet.
The Deepwater Horizon tragedy of April 2010 occurred in US waters several thousand miles away, but with BP in the thick of it meant the accident and its causes have been scrutinized just as acutely in London and Aberdeen as in Louisiana. Only owing to its own 1998 Piper Alpha disaster, which led to a raft of sweeping changes to the UKCS regime, has the UK sector been able to convincingly defend its decision to continue deepwater exploration in UK waters, with claims, and probably accurate ones, that the UK oil sector’s safety standards are the highest in the world. The findings of the reports into the Deepwater Horizon incident’s causes have been far from ignored, by either government or industry, but licensing has continued pretty much as scheduled, albeit with increased scrutiny for certain areas deemed as warranting further attention.
What lies beneath
It's an old, old story, literally… but always worth telling. Hundreds of millions of years ago, North America, including Greenland, was attached to the Scandinavian peninsula. As North America began its westward drift, a subsea basin developed between the two land masses. From the mouths of rivers on both sides poured silt and all manner of plant and animal residue, which accumulated and decayed along with dead sea organisms and bacteria in sedimentary layers on the ocean floor. As layer built upon layer, and the continents pulled apart, the pressure on the lower sediments increased several thousand times, converting them into sandstone and limestone. Simultaneously, temperatures rose.
Seeing the light
‘North Sea oil’, as an industry, didn’t startinthe sea and it didn’t start with oil as we know it today, but rather onshore with coal or, more specifically torbanite. Sometimes known as boghead coal, torbanite is a type if oil shale named after Torbane Hill near Bathgate, Scotland, an area of prolific natural occurrence. Lacustrine in nature, torbanite is created by sediments brought down by rivers that settle into and fill in lakes over time. The water drains away or evaporates and the area turns into a plain. The soil left behind by the process is often highly fertile but, as James Young found in 1851, it can possess other properties beyond the agricultural. In 1847, Young, a Glaswegian chemist, began examining seepages of an ‘oil’ that miners in a Derbyshire colliery had noticed. Young’s own process distilled the seeping liquid into a thin oil suitable for use as lamp oil, and a thicker oil that had excellent machinery lubricating abilities.
The role and importance of the onshore in both the war effort and in the oil sector itself are not disputed. But if the beginnings of the UK's North Sea industry were to be defined by the birth of theoffshore, then attention turns to 1965 and the tragic SeaGem. It was a series of gas shows onshore Netherlands in the 1950s, coupled with the knowledge of Eakring's riches, that led to a growing conjecture that hydrocarbons might also lie under the seabed. Nederlandse Aardolie Maatschappij (NAM), a joint venture between Royal Dutch Shell and Esso (now ExxonMobil), began drilling the Slochteren-1 well on May 29, 1959, and hit gas on July 22.
An element of sediment
According to the International Association of Oil & Gas Producers (OGP), whose members produce more than half the world's oil and about a third of its gas, the search for new supplies lurking deep within the Earth's surface starts hundreds of kilometres up'. High-resolution satellite photography can provide a vital clue in identifying those areas of the Earth's crust most likely to conceal the type of rock formations that can trap oil and gas deposits. These formations are known as sedimentary basins, since they consist of areas of prehistoric sediment deposited by ancient rivers and seas. Once identified, sedimentary basins can be explored using a variety of seismic techniques. These are based on sound waves and provide the most efficient way to find the underground rock formations that are most likely to be oil and gas reservoirs.
“The end of oil and gas supplies has been predicted since the early 20th century”, says the International Association of Oil & Gas Producers (OGP). “And every time, those predictions have proved wrong.” Why? Because the prophets did not take into account market incentives and developing technology. Investment and innovation have led to techniques such as 3D and 4D seismic evaluation, directional drilling, long subsea tie-backs, deepwater production and enhanced oil recovery (EOR) systems. These techniques have prolonged field life and enabled access to resources beyond all expectations.
Dallas of the North
Any prospering industry anywhere needs a strong support infrastructure behind it, and the UKCS has got that in spades. The past four decades of oil and gas development in and offshore the UK have seen the evolution of a number of oil centres, but none more important than Aberdeen. Some say it's the abundant Scottish rain that makes the granite of which Aberdeen is built glint like silver. Others say it is the oil wealth itself that has injected itself into the city. Whether the "Granite City" or the "Silver City", Aberdeen has prospered as the UKCS has, and is as synonymous with oil as Las Vegas is with the one-armed bandit and Elvis.
Looking beyond the Horizon
It seems ironic that oil and gas, fossil fuels after all, have an important role to play in the UK’s gradual transition to a lower-carbon economy. But no transition could ever occur overnight. The UK is still expected to meet 70% of its energy demand with oil and gas in 2020, and that expectation alone signals that a high degree of reliance on oil and gas will continue for some substantial time beyond that. How much of the oil and gas the UK uses in the next four decades will come from domestic production remains to be seen and depends on many factors. Not the least of these are government policy and the fiscal picture, which will be key dynamics in the degree to which oil and gas companies decide to continue putting cash into the North Sea.
Not spent yet
The higher you climb, the greater the fall, so the adage goes. Since that first discovery in 1965, the UK’s oil fortunes have waxed and waned, taking it from total reliance on imports, to becoming a net exporter, to its position now as a mature and declining oil producer. They might both be kingdoms, but the UK was never going to be another Saudi Arabia. As a mature producing province, the North Sea is used to enduring premature obituaries. Oil production first peaked in the mid-1980s, whereupon the 1988 Piper Alpha disaster saw a sudden slump in investment, a production decline to some 1.9m barrels per day by the early 1990s, and declarations the region was ‘over’. A resurgence of interest and capital outlay saw production rise to peak once more in 1999, before starting a steady decline of an average 7% per year.