Discovered in 1971, the Brent field was one of several major finds that turned the North Sea into a world-class oil region. Companies like Royal Dutch Shell, which operates the Brent field, and Exxon Mobil, its co-owner, focused their investments in the West, after a wave of nationalization in the Middle East and elsewhere.

The North Sea is a vast operation, with more than 300 fields scattered across 95,000 square miles. Shell built four giant platforms in the Brent field, called Alpha, Bravo, Charlie and Delta, capable of withstanding giant waves and hostile weather.




Fields to be decommissioned by 2022

Exclusive economic zone boundaries

Fields to be decommissioned by 2022

Exclusive economic zone boundaries


Shell must safely dismantle these monsters and plug more than 100 wells below them. The company estimates that the process will last a decade and cost billions of dollars, some paid by British taxpayers.

Such exercises will be increasingly common in the North Sea and other oil regions. Around 100 platforms are expected to be dismantled in British waters over the next decade.

Shell figures that hiring Pioneering Spirit to cart the platforms to shore where they can be dismantled is cheaper and safer than busting them up at sea. “The biggest risk is putting people on helicopters,” said Alistair Hope, Shell’s project director, referring to the usual means of transportation to offshore platforms.

The oil companies do not want a repeat of the mid-1990s. Back then, Shell’s plan to sink a piece of Brent equipment, called Brent Spar, in the ocean depths caused a bruising fight with environmental groups led by Greenpeace and prompted stricter regulation.

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