NE Scotland, Orkney & Shetland

Iconic Brent decommissioning plan unveiled by Royal Dutch Shell

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Media captionBrent Delta sits among a line of platforms dating back to the 1970s

Royal Dutch Shell is to begin consulting on its plan to remove the first of the iconic Brent platforms in what will be the biggest North Sea decommissioning project to date.

Phase one of the operation - which it hopes to carry out next year - involves using a giant double-hulled ship to remove everything apart from the legs in a single lift.

A consultation will begin later this month before it submits plans to the Department of Environment, Energy and Climate Change.

The product of the oilfield, Brent Crude, is used as a benchmark for setting oil prices in the North Sea sector.

The Pieter Schelte installation and decommissioning ship will float underneath the platform, 115 miles north east of Shetland, before lifting the entire 'topside' - leaving behind just the legs and everything below the water line.

Shell says the lift takes about 10 seconds.

A small number of journalists, including myself, were taken to the Brent Delta to be given a feel for the scale of the operation.

Although it has not produced gas or oil since 2011, almost the same number of people are needed to work on the Brent Delta as an operating platform.

It still requires chefs, medics, helideck operators and many of the other support roles for a self-contained community, but instead of pumping out oil the engineers are preparing the platform for removal.

Extra steelwork is being installed to retain the structural integrity of the 25,500-tonne topside when it is lifted.

'Less work offshore'

Alistair Hope, project director for Brent Decommissioning, said: "We're going to lift that in one piece and take it down to a special yard in Hartlepool where we can dismantle and recycle it in a much more controlled way.

"This saves us a huge amount of work offshore, a huge amount of safety risk and a huge amount of environmental expose and allows us to do the whole thing in a much more efficient way."

Image caption Sections of equipment are already labelled as decommissioned

We were speaking while perched on a small piece of scaffolding attached to the bottom of the platform to give views of the three giant concrete legs which hold it up.

Below us, to emphasise the hostile nature of this part of the world, the North Sea crashed violently against the legs while the swell rose and fell a terrific height.

Mr Hope added: "We've looked at a range of options including cutting the Brents up in situ into small pieces or big modules.

"That would require an enormous amount of offshore work, about a million man hours, and as you can imagine these are very big complicated, integrated platforms with pipes and wires criss-crossing each other.

"It's far less work offshore so we don't have all the inherent risks of bringing people here."

Industry challenge

The Brent Delta is not the first decommissioning project from the field. The Brent Spar caused international outrage towards Shell when it planned to dump the oil storage module in the deep waters of the North Atlantic.

Protestors from Greenpeace occupied the accommodation for several days and Shell was forced to alter its plans.

Although this first stage is unlikely to prompt controversy, the second phase will be more heavily scrutinised as it involves contaminated concrete oil storage tanks which sit on the seabed next to the platform's legs.

Lang Banks, from WWF Scotland, said: "I think some of the risks are, if you move some of these structures will you end up releasing contamination into the marine environment but if you leave them there, at what point will that contamination end up in the marine environment.

"So it's a case of do you clean up now or do you clean up long into the future and that's the challenge the industry is facing."

Although originally projected to last 25 years, the Brent field has been producing oil for 37.

One of the first to work there in the 1970s was retired tool-pusher Tom Adams, who believes little has changed operationally over the years.

The camaraderie

He said: "You could have gone to one of the platforms and you would know automatically where to go once you got on board.

"So the change between, say, the Brent Delta and a modern one would, I'm sure, just be very similar."

But he says the biggest difference, because of advancement in communications, is the camaraderie.

In fact one room which houses a suite of 'recreational' computers is now accompanied by a sign saying they are "NOT" to be used for work.

Mr Adams added: "They have no reason to linger because they have got television, they can go into their cabins on their own and sit and watch a programme they want.

"They can phone home, they can Skype and see what the kids are going.

"When we were there at the beginning we had cinema days and they used to send out the big reels of films.

"When it came on that was a big rush to get into the rec room and get a decent seat."

Shell has four platforms in the field but only one of them, Brent Charlie, still produces oil.

The company is in the early stages of drawing up decommissioning plans for the rest of the field.

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