What does 2017 tell us about the future of North Sea Offshore Decommissioning?

Posted by Andy Norman on 29-Nov-2017 13:00:00

What does 2017 tell us about the future of North Sea Offshore Decommissioning?

As we eagerly await the annual facts and figures from industry analysts, every sign points at 2017 as being a positive year for decommissioning progress, particularly in the North Sea.

In January, we discussed in the Claxton blog predictions made by Oil and Gas UK, who, in their 2016 Decommissioning Insight, evaluated what the industry planned to do collectively to sustain efficiency improvements and cost reductions.

Since the turn of the year, there have been key developments which has seen a huge decommissioning shift, and although nobody can say for certain what the future will hold, there is no doubt that the events of this year will influence the future of the sector.

In this blog, we will compare predictions made earlier in the year with the events that have transpired, and give an insight into how offshore decommissioning is shaping up for the future.

Decommissioning expenditure still predicted to increase  

The decommissioning sector previously accounted for 5% of total expenditure in the industry in Oil and Gas UK’s Decommissioning Insight 2016 report, up from 2% back in 2010. At the beginning of 2017 it was predicted the percentage of total UK decommissioning expenditure could potentially rise above 12%

However, in their 2017 economic report, published in September, Oil and Gas UK reported that offshore decommissioning in the UK Continental Shelf (UKCS) rose to 7% of total industry spend within the last year. Although this is lower than estimated, decommissioning remained the only area of increasing expenditure within their report.

Western Europe Offshore Decommissioning Expenditure
Image source: Western Europe Decommissioning Market Forecast 2017-2040

As we can see by market research carried out in March of this year by energy research group Douglas-Westwood, Western Europe, including the North Sea, is only just seeing the start an increase in decommissioning expenditure, with 2017 among the lowest years of expenditure compared to the next decade. We can only speculate that Western Europe is gearing up for the expected peak of decommissioning levels, in which the UK is predicted to account for the largest proportion of activity, representing 54% of total expenditure, and 45% of platform removals.

To support the predicted rise in offshore decommissioning expenditure, global energy consultant Wood MacKenzie also speculated that 2017 would see a rise in British oil production for the third year running - claiming that this has now hit its peak, and is set to fall back in 2018 due to a lack of investment and exploration. While some are saying that the North Sea has an unlikely but optimistic lifeline, reports from 2017, including Douglas-Westwood’s, indicate that the huge influx of decommissioning projects has yet to even begin.

Project numbers set to continue to rise

Looking at the huge scheduled project numbers, with more than 100 estimated platforms forecast for complete or partial removal, industry figureheads and politicians have called for the UK to embrace the decommissioning challenges ahead. Speaking at the Offshore Europe conference in Aberdeen this year, Andrew Jones, exchequer secretary to the Treasury, said  “The North Sea is one of the first regions in the world to start decommissioning on such a large scale. As the need for decommissioning grows, we must seize the opportunity to cement the UK as a world leader in this field and export this knowledge globally.”

In 2017 we have witnessed significant projects and movements in the North Sea, with Shell starting the huge task of decommissioning the iconic Brent field, which has produced around a tenth of UK’s North Sea oil. The process began with the removal of the Brent Delta platform in April, with the assistance of the Pioneering Spirit, a ship of record breaking size that has now achieved the heaviest ever single lift of a rig’s “topside”. Production also ceased on the Buchan Alpha facility, with the vessel arriving in Shetland for decommissioning in August.

In March of this year, the Boston Consulting Group highlighted that North Sea decommissioning is required for over 500 fixed installations in total. This includes over 500 subsea production systems, and abandoning more than 10,000 wells, with aggregate cost estimates starting at close to £79.97 billion. With forecasts showing that the UK and Norway are set to carry out 186 projects over the next decade, this is only going to scratch the surface of the huge number of projects that are required throughout the region.

However, a report by Wood Mackenzie has indicated that the first half of 2017 saw a record number of decommissioning plans, 10 submitted in the UK alone. With a high number of project plans, the decommissioning sector is looking forward to a boom in new jobs, with leading operators recognising the need for tailored talent, and sourcing the right training. The decommissioning sector in the North Sea is an opportunity for the UK to lay down the foundations and become influencers in the industry, while building a skilled workforce that could be hired worldwide.

Reduced unit costs

During 2017, cost has remained a hotly debated issue within decommissioning, with many wondering who will foot the bill for the various projects across the North Sea.

Decommissioning costs will need to continue to drop if the Oil and Gas Authority (OGA) is to reach its target of reducing the total cost of decommissioning to less than £39 billion, an essential figure set during this year. This is a feat that will require significantly efficient decommissioning processes, innovative approaches, and unique technological advances.  

2017 has seen the introduction of the OGA’s Vision 2035, launched in January, which intends to build long-term guidelines for the UK oil and gas industry, outlining key priorities to help secure the future of the North Sea. Efficient decommissioning is listed as one of the most immediate next steps, with new technology a key feature in achieving the target of becoming a ‘global energy industry’.

Back in 2015, the Efficiency Task Force (ETF) was created in response to decreases in efficiency that left the UKCS exposed to the decline in oil price. The online portal is replete with tools and resources to help operators increase efficiency within their projects. In 2017, we have begun to see cost-savings generated with the guidance of the ETF’s initiative, with companies including Maersk sharing cost-saving case studies on the back of the ETF’s guidance.

The next decade of decommissioning

The UK’s leading industry bodies have set the following goals and expectations of North Sea decommissioning for the next 5-10 years:

  • 1,832 wells set to be plugged and abandoned across the North Sea, 1,470 on the United Kingdom Continental Shelf, and 362 on the Norwegian Continental Shelf.
  • Oil companies are forecast to spend £53bn from 2017 winding down North Sea operations
  • Almost half is expected to be recouped from the Treasury through tax relief
  • The UK oil and gas authority aims to reduce the costs of decommissioning by at least 35% to £39 billion

A clear focus on efficient, good-value decommissioning in the North Sea is going to become a requirement within the next decade.

Roger Esson, chief executive of UK industry group Decom North Sea, says peak decommissioning activity is forecast to take place around 2024 and 2025. He stresses that “Effective, efficient decommissioning can only be preceded by intelligent asset management in the late-life phase, which can commence anything up to ten years prior to decommissioning.”

Therefore, long-term strategies with a real focus on innovation are essential for the decommissioning industry to keep moving forward, and will help enable the industry to hit key targets set out during 2017.

Surpassing challenges through innovation

Events in 2017 have created a clearer picture of the biggest challenges to come within the decommissioning industry, with ambitious government targets, and a rising surge of decommissioning activity.  

To thrive within this era of change, Claxton couldn’t agree more with recent quotes from Steve Phimister, VP & Director of Shell UK & Ireland, taken from the SPE Offshore Europe 2017 event: “You really can’t approach the decommissioning challenge in traditional ways, traditional thinking will get you traditional results.”

To reach the government’s target on decommissioning cost reduction, as an industry we will need to look beyond the immediate short-term efficiencies. It’s now more essential than ever for operators to seek expert and reliable supply chains for support and guidance, as well as those that can demonstrate innovative ways to successfully achieve more efficient decommissioning.

Claxton - key decommissioning players in 2018

Claxton has a reliable and long-standing record of offshore decommissioning projects around the globe, with a portfolio of innovative services that have made even the trickiest of decommissioning projects a success.

So far, 2017 will be remembered as a key year for Claxton, with many successful decommissioning campaigns completed. We also deployed our new WellRaizer® modular conductor recovery system to support the rigless recovery of seven abandoned wells on the Norwegian Continental Shelf. WellRaizer® has been designed, engineered, and developed by Claxton to allow the recovery offshore of oil and gas conductor pipe and casing of up to 36 inch in diameter, without the use of a jack-up rig or platform-based drilling derrick, once the downhole/sub-seabed severance has taken place.

This development means we are able offer a full and efficient decommissioning package, rather than just a one-off service to our customers.

In our downloadable guide, you can learn more about our decommissioning packages for platform wells (rigless, rig-based or combined ‘SIMOPS’), subsea wells, and casing recovery (drilling support operations).

Photo credit: Jim Barton via Flickr

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