The fate of the Brent Spar

Feb 26, 2002 01:00 AM

Brent Spar may seem a name from long ago, but the fall-out from the battle over the fate of this redundant floating oil storage reservoir is still a pain in the wallet for the oil companies. Billions of pounds are at stake in the continuing debate about how the North Sea is cleaned up as the hundreds of oil and gas platforms become redundant. As a result of the Brent Spar tussle, the presumption is that all rigs are brought ashore for scrapping -- but that was only round one.
A new battle looms over the mountains of drill cuttings on the sea bed, left over from the oil boom. All the governments bordering the north-east Atlantic, as far south as Portugal are being consulted about how to deal with this potentially huge pollution problem. It is estimated that 0.5 % of the North Sea bottom is covered in drill cuttings. That adds up to 3,750 sq km of seabed piled up with mud and rock containing toxic materials from which an estimated 330 tons of oil leaks into the sea each year.
Collecting thesepiles, cleaning them up, or injecting them back into the wells from which they came are options. Cost estimates vary wildly but some experts talk of £ 20 bn. The oil industry says cost is not the issue -- that it is the best environmental option that matters.

The problem is deciding the best option. Three years of consultation between the industry, governments and green campaigners has failed to reach a consensus. It is now up to the 15 governments and the EU, which are members of the Ospar (Oslo and Paris) Convention, which control pollution in the North Sea, to consider the question and decide.
A qualification of membership is having a coastline or rivers that drain into the North Sea, or north-east Atlantic, which may cause pollution. So Spain and Portugal in the south qualify, as does Switzerland, where the Rhine rises. Not all these countries have oil platforms in the North Sea and gain no benefit so are not sympathetic to the oil companies perceived by them to have polluted the waters.
In 1998, these governments decided that all oil rigs must be removed from the North Sea, except in exceptional circumstances -- that is, where they were so large that it was almost technically impossible. It is extraordinary how the balance of power has changed in seven years since the spectacular battle on the high seas between Shell and Greenpeace.

The fate of the Brent Spar was seen as a defining moment for corporate responsibility. Never again would big business and a single government, at least in Europe, be able to decide on a dumping option without first having consulted other nations and the environmental lobby.
Seven years ago Shell crumbled in the face of attacks on its petrol stations in Germany, and decided not to sink the Brent Spar. There followed the most protracted consultation exercise in corporate history about the fate of the hulk, which was eventually disposed of on shore. A precedent was set.
The upshot was that consumers, public opinion and most European governments were firmly against sea dumping. It was as much a matter of principle as a best environmental option. At first the then Conservative government, which had backed the dumping option, fumed and resisted but when Labour came to power, John Prescott, then environment secretary, became one of the stalwarts of land disposal.

The 1998 decision to bring rigs ashore was made in Sintra, Portugal. It was heralded as a great victory for the environment and the world moved on. It was expected that a new industry would be born to recycle rigs. But because of the way oil prices rose, the expected rush of decommissioning in the North Sea did not materialise. New technologies were employed and every ounce of the black stuff and gas that could be, was extracted.
The debate over which rigs might be left in-situ was adjourned and a new consultation began about the unseen pollution under the sea in the form of old drill cuttings. Because of the hydro-carbons and heavy metals in these cuttings, the practice of dumping them overboard had already been outlawed. It stopped altogether at the end of 2000.
But by then vast quantities of drill cuttings were piled on the sea bed, many of them underneath and surrounding the platforms that were to be lifted and brought ashore. Because of the position of the cuttings, many piles would be disturbed, potentially releasing much of the pollution into the sea.

Simon Reddy, international campaigner for Greenpeace, takes the view that the cuttings should still be removed and rejects the notion that the technology is not up to it. "An industry that can develop the technology to extract oil from the most hostile sea environments and in deep water can certainly devise methods of recovering safely these drill cuttings. It is a question of will. If they are forced to do it they will find a way. "In our view the argument is whether they should and we think the quantities of heavy metals, drilling chemicals and oil that would otherwise be released into the sea fully justify recovery."
Not all environmentalists agree. Pete Wilkinson, a former director of Greenpeace but now an environmental consultant, believes the cost in energy to recover the cuttings, dealing with them when they reach the shore, and the land filling or other disposal methods have to be justified by the benefits. In some cases, he believes, cuttings should be left on the seabed where natural processes will gradually destroy the pollutants, or at least some of them. Greenpeace does not buy these arguments, saying the process could take up to 1,000 years.
Mr Wilkinson says: "There are many that think the original decision to move all installations ashore was too hasty and not the best use of the money. Imagine what you could do if only a portion of the £ 20 bn were put in a fund to help the environment rather than spent on recovery of cuttings -- with dubious environmental benefits."

The oil industry is cautious about making a pitch for leaving the cuttings on the sea floor. Ian Silk, from the UK Offshore Operators Association, has just presented a report to Ospar which details every option available. These include covering the piles in concrete mats to prevent the escape of pollution, sucking up the cuttings in giant pipes for treatment on the surface, and injecting the cuttings back down the wells from whence they came.
Mr Silk said, "There is no one solution which prevents significant environmental impact. The content of each pile is different, its stability is different, the depth and turbulence of the water has to be taken into account. Each case will have to be taken on its merits and an environmental assessment made."
A report was delivered to an Ospar sub-committee and has been sent to member governments for consultation. The results will by collected and formed into a policy document by the Department of Trade and Industry later in the year, and put to a ministerial meeting next year -- the first since 1998.

With billions of pounds at stake -- a good 60 % of it from taxpayers by the time tax breaks are taken into account -- there is much for the governments to ponder. The Frigg field, halfway between Norway and Britain is about to be dismantled. The consultation exercise, ending this month, involves six rigs. The preferred option is to remove the three steel ones entirely, take the steel superstructures from the other three but leave the concrete legs on the sea bed. These will become navigational hazards but could be marked on charts and lit as a warning to shipping.
Everything from the safety of workers to the environmental impact of methods of disposal has been considered. The cost of the preferred option of decommissioning and plugging the wells is £ 340 mm. Removing the concrete takes the total cost to £ 930 mm, and that is without extra costs of removing drill cuttings as well. At present the plan is to leave them where they are. Next year, though, Ospar may remove that option.

Source: Guardian Unlimited
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