Is 'Rigs to Reefs' viable in the North Sea?

Fifteen years ago, the Brent Spar fiasco captivated the world and changed the North Sea rulebook. Is rigs-to-reefs any more a viable strategy for the region today than it was back then?

By Sam Phipps in Edinburgh

In 1995 Shell’s plans to dump the Brent Spar terminal on the seabed were thwarted after a long and controversial campaign by Greenpeace. The resulting OSPAR convention led to a de facto ban on leaving oil and gas installations in the North Sea.
With hundreds of structures facing decommissioning in the next 10 to 20 years, what, if anything, has changed that might justify a relaxation on this policy? And is there any genuine appetite for dumping if it is under the “rigs to reefs” banner?
Brian Twomey, managing director of Reverse Engineering Services, based in Manchester, argues that Brent Spar should not have been allowed to dictate policy in the way it did.
“It’s like demolishing a power plant and applying those rules and regulations to demolishing houses,” he said.
“Every structure is totally different and what applied to Brent Spar certainly doesn’t apply to jackets. That was a big storage tank, not a lattice structure which is covered with marine growth.
Though Brent Spar brought the environment up the agenda, it raised decommissioning costs inordinately for questionable gains.
Far from causing pollution, substructures such as jackets, if located in the right places, can benefit marine growth and generate local fish havens, says Twomey.
 He argues that a blanket ban is therefore “ill considered” when rigs-to-reefs has worked in the Gulf of Mexico, Brunei, Malaysia and Japan. Even California has said it will consider the strategy.
Alan Simcock, former executive director of Ospar – the mechanism by which 15 governments of Europe, together with the EU, co-operate to protect the marine environment of the North-East Atlantic – says media and local factors can alter perceptions of risk and can negatively influence policy.

According to Simcock, it was this misconception that provided the backdrop against which the Ospar guidelines were drafted – guidelines that have restricted the definition of “artificial reefs” to artificial structures built specifically for the reproduction of living organisms.

Research is also needed on the CO2 emissions from dumping and onshore recycling.
Biodiversity boost?
The rigs-to-reefs programme is said to have improved biodiversity in the Gulf of Mexico, whose flat and sandy seabeds otherwise offer little shelter for marine creatures.

However, Keith Mayo, head of offshore decommissioning at the UK Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC), does not expect any dramatic shift when it comes to North Sea installations.
“Rigs-to-reefs? I wouldn’t think NGOs would be very happy to hear that was on the agenda,” he said.
Instead, he says, the impetus would need to arise from a different quarter. If, for example, there was a call for reefs triggered by a demand for aquaculture zones, operators could step in and offer an old platform. That imperative, rather than “getting rid of old platforms”, might garner support.
As yet, however, it remains questionable as to whether artificial reefs actually attract extra fish. As such, there is a need for strong independent research to prove that they do boost fish stocks.
In any case, at this stage there is little, if any, demand from commercial fishing fleets in the North Sea. “Whenever I’ve mentioned [artificial reefs] to the SFF [Scottish Fishermen’s Federation] they are not keen,” says Mayo.
“It’s not an initiative we see the government taking forward,“ he concludes.
Roy Aspden, head of decommissioning at AMEC, agrees. “You have to be really solid on the science and ecology, and understand where the natural spawning grounds for fish are. It doesn’t necessarily follow that if you do create a reef you’ve created a place for them.”

Carbon neutrality questionable
The industry working group continues to keep the question on its radar but Aspden has seen no huge drive towards rigs-to-reefs.
As for their potential to cut carbon emissions, the steelwork that would normally be recycled through the blast furnaces would have to be extracted afresh from ore.
There’s scope for academic research institutes to do more work into investigating the strength of the case for rigs-to-reefs in the North Sea, he says. “But I for one am not yet convinced it’s a good idea.”
Greenpeace, bitterly criticised at the time of Brent Spar for dramatically overstating the amount of oil aboard the rig – a mistake for which it later apologised – still opposes any form of dumping, on grounds of both marine pollution and lack of demonstrable benefit to fish stocks.
Today Brent Spar has an afterlife as part of a roll-on roll-off ferry quay near Stravanger in Norway. If rigs-to-reefs is less taboo now than it was back in 1995, there is still a long way to go before it becomes a fixture.