The Guardian - 27 Oct 07

Prof. Robert B. Laughlin
Department of Physics
Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305
(Copied 9 Jan 10)

Deeper, Rougher, Further - in Search of the Last North Sea Oil

By Andy Beckett
Saturday, October 27, 2007

Before visiting a North Sea oil rig it is necessary to become a little more fatalistic. First, in departures at the Aberdeen heliport, you join a roomful of glum oilmen biting their fingernails and jogging their feet. Then you all put on heavy rubber-sealed "immersion suits", less officially known as "body bags", in case your helicopter crashes into the sea. You watch an unusually blunt safety video about boarding liferafts and removing helicopter windows at high speed. The glum men - many veterans of hundreds of mornings like this - pay close attention. Then you put in earplugs and walk out on to the roaring Tarmac.

The helicopter looks patched-up and old. For the next three hours, it batters against headwinds and cloud. In the narrow passenger cabin, no one talks - no one could hear you talk - and most people sit with their eyes tight closed. After two hours the pilot warns through the intercom that the weather at the rig is only "50-50"; if he can't land, you will be flying straight back to Aberdeen. Then, quite abruptly, the clouds part, a tiny helipad appears, surrounded by a heaving sea, and the helicopter sinks unsteadily towards the waves.

Down on the helipad, the wind is enough to flatten you, and there is no parapet. Bits of the rest of the oil rig - a crane, piles of piping, some corrugated hoardings - loom in the rain like a building site adrift at sea. Then there are steps in front of you, made of metal mesh and descending steeply, with the waves foaming and spitting 50ft below.

You pick your way down. A door opens in a rust-flecked wall. Inside, there is a low corridor, a rush of warm air, and beyond, a large room with cracked leather sofas, a huge television and a dartboard. "Welcome to the Transocean Prospect," someone says.

The Prospect is a drilling rig anchored near the north-eastern extremity of the British sector of the North Sea. It has a crew of 98, four decks of crude-looking machinery and the most modern computers, and the air of a battered space station undertaking vital but largely forgotten work in some far-off galaxy.

One other thing quickly struck me when I visited last month: most of the people I met, engaged in the dangerous and physical business of extracting oil from one of the roughest seas in the world, were at least 40 years old.

Britain is in the autumn of its North sea era. "The oil we're getting from the North Sea is in decline," says the energy minister, Malcolm Wicks. "A lot of it is getting more difficult to recover. Some of the big companies have gone away. In the last few years, our oil production has fallen by 8% or 9% annually. We aim to slow that decline to, say, 5% a year."

Last year Britain's oil output was the lowest since 1979, the first big year of North Sea production. This week BP announced it was shedding up to 350 North Sea jobs, the latest in a series of cuts in the oilfield by major companies.

Yet in a world where the price of crude is rapidly approaching $100 (£48.76) a barrel, and where many oilfields are located in more politically unstable places, even dwindling North Sea deposits are valuable. And the North Sea remains arguably Britain's last heavy industry: Mr Wicks says its oil and gas fields directly or indirectly employ 480,000 people.

Some of them work in the moneyed hush of London. Hugh Mackay of AGR Petroleum, a Norwegian company with many North Sea operations, including contract work on the Prospect, says: "The major oil companies aren't doing any more North Sea exploration, but there are the smaller, new generation companies.

"For them it can be company-making. Everyone becomes rich. And when the oil runs out, which will be a long time away, we will have transferable skills."

In Aberdeen, the northern base for Britain's oil activities since the 70s, the harbour is still full of rig-servicing vessels like tugboats on steroids, and the hilltops in the richest suburbs are still occupied by the oil companies' concrete and glass citadels.

There is still an oil-town flashiness to the cost of a restaurant meal or a taxi, to the local appetite for electric gates and big cars.

There has been an oil business in Scotland since the 19th century, but until the 60s it revolved around the laborious mining and processing of oil-bearing rock.

Then the discovery of the North Sea oilfields sparked something like a gold rush: the hasty construction of rigs and oil terminals, thousands of workers descending on Scottish islands and small towns, the media and politicians forecasting that Britain was about to be rescued from decades of decline.

In 1975 Harold Wilson announced he could see "'the turning point' beloved of historians and journalists ... the beginning of the end of our dependency on overseas supplies of energy."

Production peaked in 1985 - too late for Wilson and other unlucky prime ministers - and again in 1999. That the first of these North Sea golden eras occurred in the middle of Margaret Thatcher's time in office has been a source of interest to historians, Labour politicians and conspiracy theorists.

Yet the timing of Britain's oil booms has owed much to factors such as the world crude price and the difficulties of working in the North Sea that are beyond the government's control.

Until the 70s, oil rigs had only been used in relatively benign waters such as those off California; turning the North Sea into an oil territory required the invention, development and deployment of new technologies, from giant rigs to tiny undersea tools, on a scale compared to the US space programme.

Work dominates everything. There are no days off: people do a week, or a fortnight, or three weeks on board, and then have the same amount of time off back onshore.

Almost everyone works a 12-hour shift, starting at 7am or 7pm. Leisure time not spent aslee is interrupted by the crackly sound of on-duty workers being summoned via the rec room and mess hall Tannoys.

"All they do is talk about what they've done," says one of the mess hall staff. "It's partly because they often can't hear each other when they're working."

Drilling at sea is expensive. In the North Sea now, with most of the easy oil gone, rigs like the Prospect send their drill bits and lubricants not just thousands of feet down, but also down and then sideways to reach the deposits, sometimes almost uphill. With the oilfield in a mature, more cost-conscious phase, the business relies on contracting-out and companies competing for equipment. "Before the current boom the rate for renting a rig used to be $40-60k a day," says Mackay. "Now it's $160-200k."

Safety is also more of a priority than it was in the gold rush phase, when the incidence of fatal accidents on rigs was 11 times that of the onshore construction industry. Since 1988, when 167 workers died in a fire on Piper Alpha, the daily routine of oil platforms such as the Prospect has been stiffened by rules and checklists and cautionary briefings.

A few times people on the rig grumbled to me about them, but mostly they talked about safety with an almost religious reverence. Yet no amount of micro-management quite insulates rig workers from the moon-colony isolation and strangeness of their chosen profession. There are few windows on the Prospect, and chairs tend to be turned away from them.

Starchy Meals

People eat huge starchy meals - the salad bar is not heavily patronised - and buy a lot of chocolate and cigarettes (rigs are exempt from legislation governing smoking in public places) from a tiny shop under a metal staircase.

There is no alcohol on board, and virtually no crime. Cabin doors are left ajar; people seem to get on. "You get good crews and bad crews," says a young mechanic who used to be in the army. "This is a good one."

But there is a strong sense of people keeping themselves in check. They are almost all men, often with children, as often from southern England as northern Scotland.

"You get a taste for the time off, the money," says one. "You say to yourself, 'I'll give it 10 years.' You turn around and find it's been 20 years."

When you ask people when their current offshore stint is due to end, they answer in a second. But if the fog comes down and stops the helicopters flying, which it sometimes does for days on end, they are stuck on the rig and their time onshore erodes accordingly. On the Prospect, the North Sea weather forecast is discussed with a mixture of intense interest and heavy fatalism.

In the Norwegian sector of the oilfield, where many of the crew had worked as well, the industry is organised somewhat differently. There are strong unions, workers get more time onshore, and the tax revenues have been husbanded rather than spent by the government.

Even Malcolm Wicks is a little envious: "If you could replay history, the idea as in Norway of building up a national [oil] fund is actually quite an attractive one."

In Aberdeen, for all the private affluence oil has brought, the congested roads and slightly shabby city centre do not feel that transformed by the North Sea miracle - or that prepared for a future without it. The last shipyard shut in 1991 and the fishing industry has shrunk. There are universities and shopping centres - typical modern British employers - but people still talk with dread about the late 80s, when the oil price dropped sharply for several years, the oil companies cut back accordingly, and the local job market grew suddenly less generous. "There were a lot of gardeners in Aberdeen wearing coveralls [oil rig overalls]," an Aberdonian on the Prospect told me.

An exhausted North Sea may not be the end of Britain's oil story. The government is preparing to claim sovereignty over several large potential fields in the Antarctic and the Atlantic. Mark Gillard, AGR's operations manager, has been to Port Stanley in the Falklands to see if it can be the next Aberdeen.

"If the geology plays out," he said with suddenly animated eyes as we sat in the Prospect's fuggy mess hall, "the Falklands will be bigger than any North Sea field." He had talked to Port Stanley's police and pubkeepers about how they might cope with a town full of off-duty oilmen.

Yet in Scotland, on windy hillsides in Shetland and the chilly shore of the Cromarty Firth, you can already visit abandoned oil villages and dockyards from the 70s, as magnificent and melancholy as derelict Victorian mills.

"There will be lots of work decommissioning rigs once the oil runs out," said a Prospect crewman, confidently, as the black evening waves spattered the tiny rec room window.

But when the decommissioning is over, the North Sea at night will go back to being very dark.