Finding new recycled resources in the North Sea

Written by: Martin O'Donnell | Published:

The potential decommissioning market for removal of around 95 platforms and their infrastructure is valued at nearly £17bn over the next 10 years and it could mirror the original North Sea boom for the UK economy.

By managing the complex logistics and using specialist port facilities we can complete shore-based demolition of these structures and achieve recycling rates of 96-99%, effectively capturing all the resources they represent.

As a new potential mine for materials, these structures comprise a vast amount of metals that can be effectively recycled for use in a diverse range of industries and are a vital part of the UK economy. With diverse applications they perform crucial enabling roles for many industrial growth sectors and are essential for manufacturing, construction and power generation.

They also support the UK metals industry, which is estimated to cover 11,100 companies, employs around 230,000 people, and directly contributes £10.7bn to UK GDP, and further underpins some £200bn of the UK’s GDP.

But traditional mining of the ores that produce these metals has a large carbon footprint and an environmental impact on a huge scale – with many mines visible from space. As the environmental impact and cost of virgin extraction become ever greater there is a need to make greater use of recycling.

The growing need to move towards a more circular economy now gives us the opportunity to secure supply chains, and recyclers and metal processors have made big advances in sourcing the materials demanded by industry. But we know we can go further to enhance sustainability, reduce the carbon footprint and secure supply chains.

To meet the demand, new opportunities lie in the North Sea through the decommissioning of North Sea oil and gas platforms, with an estimated 894,000 tonnes of materials, mainly metals, available between now and 2025. Recovering these platforms at the end of their working life is important to maximise the value of the materials and assets they contain, and further the sustainability of the offshore industry.

Recycling rates for these structures exceed 95% and can be as high as 99.7%, and yield a range of valuable materials including precious metals, iron, steel and electrical items. By being endlessly recyclable, metals are also a good fit for the circular economy model, with many different types of steel being the most common metal.

Widely used in the oil and gas industry, it can be found in the structures, for making flowlines, heat exchangers, umbilicals, processing equipment, transport and even kitchen appliances and catering equipment.

To maximise the recovery of these materials, Veolia and its partner Peterson have taken the pioneering steps over the last ten years to deliver a full decommissioning service that provides extensive offshore engineering and deconstruction capabilities.

This now mirrors the requirements of offshore operators and delivers full-cycle solutions from concept and selection to plugging, abandonment, recovery and recycling. Known as Engineering, Preparation, Removal and Disposal (EPRD), this represents the complete decommissioning package.

The services are offered from dedicated facilities in locations that provide the best access points to bring these North Sea structures ashore. Located in Lerwick Dales Voe and Lerwick Greenhead Base in Shetland, and Great Yarmouth, the sites cover decontamination, deconstruction, waste management and environmental services together with associated integrated logistics, marine and quayside services.

The scale of recent decommissioning operations is huge. In a unique feat of engineering and the first of its kind, the YME oil platform, spanning some 72m in length and 87m high, was removed and towed in a single lift from its original North Sea location and subsequently dismantled by Veolia. The 14,000-tonne offshore structure and equipment were dismantled, with 99.7% of the structure recycled.

In July this year the Dales Voe decommissioning facility in Shetland took another step closer to becoming a centre of excellence for recycling offshore structures from the Southern North Sea, with the arrival of two structures from Spirit Energy’s ST-1.

These comprised a 45m-high, 1,300-tonne steel jacket and 1,200-tonne topsides structure originally installed 160km off the coast. With three levels including a cellar and accommodation unit, the weather deck with pedestal crane and a mezzanine deck, production on this gas platform ceased in April 2016.

The recovery of ST-1 mirrored the decommissioning of the Buchan Alpha oil production vessel in August 2017. A semi-submersible moored floating production vessel, weighing 12,000 tonnes, it was the first major North Sea floating production vessel facility to be disposed of in Scotland. Initial off-station work achieved the primary objectives of cleaning, and reducing topsides weight in preparation for tow.

By mooring it offshore in deeper water the thrusters were then removed to reduce the draught, allowing it to be moved to the quayside where dismantling of the steel structure achieved a 98% recycling rate.

Further south, the Great Yarmouth decommissioning facility has recycled a number of structures including the 1,600-tonne Shell Leman BH platform accommodation block, known as the ‘topside’, and the 50m-high steel jacket structure that supported it 50km off the Norfolk coastline in the Southern North Sea.

In a new industry the Great Yarmouth facility is ideally placed to manage projects from the Southern and Central North Sea, and has played its role in supporting the local economy and supply chain through employment opportunities.

Operations to dismantle these structures and recycle them are not just limited to recovering materials and finding new uses for the re-usable items of plant. For instance, the decommissioning of the Buchan Alpha vessel enabled the Shetland Foodbank to benefit from around 150kg of leftover food items. The food, left in the vessel’s stores, consisted of long-life milk, cereals, tinned goods, biscuits and other items ideal for the food bank.

Recent estimates show the decommissioning industry now has the potential to create tens of thousands of new jobs. To address the identified shortage of workers skilled in these activities, Veolia is working to address the lack of resource through retaining skills from the UK oil and gas industry, and attracting young people to decommissioning through STEM careers and apprenticeships.

By improving the image of decommissioning and promoting it as a long-term career option, and giving skills and development opportunities to people from marginalised groups – eg, unemployed or young people not in education or training – Veolia aims to develop the UK workforce and real long-term jobs in this emerging industry.

This new North Sea industry is set to become another boom for the economy. We have already recovered over 100,000 tonnes of materials from North Sea assets at the end of their working life. With recycling rates greater than 96%, and now approaching 100%, they have proved they can become a good example of the circular economy in action and further the sustainability of the industry.

In this way decommissioning represents a valuable opportunity to boost UK manufacturing and GDP, create jobs and save resources that are vital to support and drive so many industries.

Martin O'Donnell is decommissioning director of Veolia

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